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Nineveh. (abode of Ninus). The capital of the ancient kingdom and empire of Assyria, which was founded by Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [meaning in opposition to] Jehovah.”* Together with Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen it constituted “the great city.” (Gen. 10:9, 11-12; Mic 5:6) Nineveh was a “city of bloodshed” (Nahum 3:1), for the Assyrians engage in many wars of conquest and used extremely brutal methods in killing their captured warriors. Undoubtedly the military battles added significantly to the city’s wealth. (Nahum 2:9) The primary deity of Nineveh seems to have been Ishtar, a goddess of love and war. The name appears to be compounded, from that of an Assyrian deity, “Nin,” corresponding, it is conjectured, with the Greek Hercules, and occurring in the names of several Assyrian kings, as in “Ninus,” the mythic founder, according to the Greek tradition of the city.
* He was a mighty hunter in opposition to Jehovah. Lit in front of or before, but in the sense of defiance of and opposition to, as in the case of the same expression in Num. 16:2; Josh. 7:12-13; 1 Ch 14:8; 2 Ch 14:10; Job 23:4. Some Bible scholars attach a favorable sense to the Hebrew preposition meaning in front of or before, the Jewish Targums, the writings of the historian Josephus, and also the context of Genesis chapter 10 suggest that Nimrod was a mighty hunter in opposition to Jehovah.
Assyria becomes the second world power of Bible history in the middle of the 8th century B.C.E. when it subjugated the northern kingdom of Israel, taking Samaria. (2 Ki. 17:6, 13, 18) Just eight years later Sennacherib, Son of Sargon II; king of Assyria, invades Judah (2 Ki. 18:13).
First Biblical Mention
The first Biblical mention of Nineveh is in Ge 10:11, where it is stated that NIMROD (which see) or Asshur went out into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah, with the addition, “the same is the great city.” Everything indicates that these statements are correct, for Nineveh was certainly at one time under Babylonian rule, and was at first not governed by Assyrian kings, but by issake or viceroys of Assur, the old capital. To all appearance, Nineveh took its name from the Babylonian Nina near Lagas in South Babylonia, on the Euphrates, from which early foundation it was probably colonized. The native name appears as Ninua or Nina (Ninaa), written with the character for “water enclosure” with that for “fish” inside, implying a connection between Nina and the Semitic nun, “fish.”
The Etymology of the Name
The Babylonian Nina was a place where fish were very abundant, and Ishtar or Nina, the goddess of the city, was associated with Nin-mah, Merodach’s spouse, as goddess of reproduction. Fish are also plentiful in the Tigris at Mosul, the modern town on the other side of the river, and this may have influenced the choice of the site by the Babylonian settlers, and the foundation thereof the great temple of Ishtar or Nina. The date of this foundation is unknown, but it may have taken place about 3OOO BC.
Position on the Tigris
Nineveh lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris, at the point where the Khosr falls into that stream. The outline of the wall is rectangular on the West, but of an irregular shape on the East. The western fortifications run from Northwest to Southeast, following, roughly, the course of the river, which now flows about 1,500 yards from the walls, instead of close to them, as in ancient times.
Nineveh and Its Surroundings.
According to the late G. Smith, the southwestern wall has a length of about 2 1/2 miles, and is joined at its western corner by the northwestern wall, which runs in a northeasterly direction for about 1 1/3 miles.
The northeastern wall, starting here, runs at first in a southeasterly direction, but turns southward, gradually approaching the southwestern wall, to which, at the end of about 3 1/4 miles, it is joined by a short wall, facing nearly South, rather more than half a mile long.
Principal Mounds and Gateways
The principal mounds are Kouyunjik, a little Northeast of the village of `Amusiyeh, and Nebi-Yunas, about 1,500 yards to the Southeast. Both of these lie just within the Southwest wall. Extensive remains of buildings occupy the fortified area. Numerous openings occur in the walls, many of them ancient, though some seem to have been made after the abandonment of the site. The principal gate on the Northwest was guarded by winged bulls (see Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, 2nd series, plural 3; Nineveh and Babylon, 120). Other gates gave access to the various commercial roads of the country, those on the East passing through the curved outworks and the double line of fortifications which protected the northeastern wall from attack on that side, where the Ninevites evidently considered that they had most to fear.
Extent and Population within the Walls
According to G. Smith, the circuit of the inner wall is about 8 miles, and Captain Jones, who made a trigonometrical survey in 1854, estimated that allotting to each inhabitant 50 square yards, the city may have contained 174,000 inhabitants. If the statement in Jonah 4:11, that the city contained 120,000 persons who could not discern between their right hand and their left, be intended to give the number of the city’s children only, then the population must have numbered about 600,000, and more than three cities of the same extent would have been needed to contain them.
Extent outside the Walls
It has therefore been supposed–and that with great probability–that there was a large extension of the city outside its walls. This is not only indicated by Jonah 3:3, where it is described as “an exceeding great city of three days’ journey” to traverse, but also by the extant ruins, which stretch Southeast along the banks of the Tigris as far as Nimroud (Calah) while its northern extension may have been regarded as including Khorsabad.
Calah, Resen, and Rehoboth-Ir
Concerning the positions of two of the cities mentioned with Nineveh, namely, Calah and Resen, there can be no doubt, notwithstanding that Resen has not yet been identified–Calah is the modern Nimroud, and Resen lay between that site and Nineveh.
The name Rehoboth-Ir has not yet been found in the inscriptions, but Fried. Delitzsch has suggested that it may be the rebit Ninua of the inscriptions, Northeast of Nineveh. If this be the case, the Nineveh of Jonah contained within it all the places in Ge 10:11-12, and Khorsabad besides.
Taking the outlying ruins from North to South, we begin with Khorsabad (Dur-Sarru-kin or Dur-Sargina), 12 miles Northeast of Kouyunjik, the great palace mound of Nineveh proper. Khorsabad is a great enclosure about 2,000 yards square, with the remains of towers and gateways. The palace mound lies on its northwest face, and consists of an extensive platform with the remains of Sargon’s palace and its temple, with a ziqqurat or temple-tower similar to those at Babylon, Borsippa, Calah and elsewhere. This last still shows traces of the tints symbolical of the 7 planets of which its stages were, seemingly, emblematic. The palace ruins show numerous halls, rooms and passages, many of which were faced with slabs of coarse alabaster, sculptured in relief with military operations, hunting-scenes, mythological figures, etc., while the principal entrances were flanked with the finest winged human-headed bulls which Assyrian art has so far revealed. The palace was built about 712 BC and was probably destroyed by fire when Nineveh fell in 606 BC, sharing the same fate. Some of the slabs and winged bulls are in the Louvre and the British Museum, but most of the antiquarian spoils were lost in the Tigris by the sinking of the rafts upon which they were loaded after being discovered.
Sherif Khan and Selamieh
Another outlying suburb was probably Tarbicu, now represented by the ruins at Sherif Khan, about 3 miles North of Kouyunjik. In this lay a temple–“palace” Sennacherib calls it–dedicated to Nergal. In ancient times it must have been a place of some importance, as Esarhaddon seems to have built a palace there, as well as a “seat” for his eldest son, Assur-bani-apli. The site of Resen, “between Nineveh and Calah,” is thought to be the modern Selamieh, 12 miles South of Nineveh, and 3 miles North of Nimroud (Calah). It is in the form of an irregular enclosure on a high mound overlooking the Tigris, with a surface of about 400 acres. No remains of buildings, sculptures or inscriptions have, however, been found there.
After Nineveh. itself (Kouyunjik), the ruins known as Nimroud, 14 or 15 miles Southeast, are the most important. They mark the site of the ancient Calah and have already been described under that heading (see p. 539). As there stated, the stone-faced temple-tower seems to be referred to by Ovid and is apparently also mentioned by Xenophon. The general tendency of the accumulated references to these sites supports theory that they were regarded as belonging to Nineveh, if not by the Assyrians themselves (who knew well the various municipal districts), at least by the foreigners who had either visited the city or had heard or read descriptions of it.
Palaces at Nineveh Proper
The palaces at Nineveh were built upon extensive artificial platforms between 30 and 50 ft. high, either of sundried brick, as at Nimroud, or of earth and rubbish, as at Kouyunjik. It is thought that they were faced with masonry, and that access was gained to them by means of flights of deep steps, or sloping pathways. Naturally, it is the plan of the basement floor alone that can at present be traced, any upper stories that may have existed had long since disappeared. The halls and rooms discovered were faced with slabs of alabaster or other stone, often sculptured with bas-reliefs depicting warlike expeditions, the chase, religious ceremonies, and divine figures. The depth of the accumulations over these varies from a few inches to about 30 ft., and if the amount in some cases would seem to be excessive, it is thought that this may have been due either to the existence of upper chambers or to the extra height of the room. The chambers, which are grouped around courtyards, are long and narrow, with small square rooms at the ends. The partition walls vary from 6 to 15 ft. in thickness, and are of sun-dried brick, against which the stone paneling was fixed. As in the case of the Babylonian temples and palaces, the rooms and halls open into each other, so that, to gain access to those farthest from the courtyard entrance, one or more halls or chambers had to be traversed. No traces of windows have been discovered, and little can, therefore, be said as to the method of lighting, but the windows were either high up, or light was admitted through openings in the roof.
The Palace of Sennacherib
The palace of Sennacherib lay in the southeast corner of the platform, and consisted of a courtyard surrounded on all four sides by numerous long halls, and rooms, of which the innermost were capable of being rendered private. It was in this palace that were found the reliefs depicting the siege of Lachish, with the representation of Sennacherib seated on his “standing” throne, while the captives and the spoil of the city passed before him. The grand entrance was flanked by winged bulls facing toward the spectator as he entered. They were in couples, back to back, on each side of the doorway, and between each pair the ancient Babylonian hero-giant, carrying in one hand the “boomerang,” and holding tightly with his left arm a struggling lion (Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, 137) was represented, just as at his father Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad. The upper part of these imposing figures had been destroyed, but they were so massive, that the distinguished explorer attributed their overthrow not to the act of man, but to some convulsion of Nature.
- The Palace of Assur-bani-apli:
In the north of the mound are the ruins of the palace of Assur-bani-apli or Assur-bani-pal, discovered by Hormuzd Rassam. His latest plan (Asshur and the Land of Nimrod, Cincinnati and New York, 1897, plate facing p. 36) does not give the whole of the structure, much of the building having been destroyed; but the general arrangement of the rooms was upon the traditional lines. The slabs with which they were paneled showed bas-reliefs illustrating the Assyrian campaigns against Babylonia, certain Arab tribes, and Elam. As far as they are preserved, the sculptures are wonderfully good, and the whole decorative scheme of the paneled walls, of which, probably, the greater part is forever lost, may be characterized, notwithstanding their defects of perspective and their mannerisms, as nothing less than magnificent. The lion-hunts of the great king, despite the curious treatment of the animals’ manes (due to the sculptors’ ignorance of the right way to represent hair) are admirable. It would be difficult to improve upon the expressions of fear, rage and suffering on the part of the animals there delineated. The small sculptures showing Assur-bani-apli hunting the goat and the wild ass are not less noteworthy, and are executed with great delicacy.
- Sennacherib’s Description of Nineveh.
- The Walls:
In all probability the best description of the city is that given by Sennacherib on the cylinder recording his expedition to Tarsus in Cilicia. From ancient times, he says, the circuit of the city had measured 9,300 cubits, and he makes the rather surprising statement that his predecessors had not built either the inner or the outer wall, which, if true, shows how confident they were of their security from attack. He claims to have enlarged the city by 12,515 (cubits). The great defensive wall which he built was called by the Sumerian name of Bad-imgallabi-lu-susu, which he translates as “the wall whose glory overthrows the enemy.” He made the brickwork 40 (cubits) thick, which would probably not greatly exceed the estimate of G. Smith, who reckoned it to have measured about 50 ft. The height of the wall he raised to 180 tipki, which, admitting the estimate of Diodorus, should amount to about 100 ft.
- The Gates–Northwest:
In this enclosing wall were 15 gates, which he enumerates in full. Three of these were situated in the short northwest wall–the gate of Hadad; the gate of Uru or Hadad of Tarbisu (Sherif Khan), and the gate of the moon-god Nannar, Sennacherib’s own deity. The plans show five openings in the wall on this side, any of which may have been the gate used when going to Tarbicu, but that adorned with winged bulls probably furnished the shortest route.
The gates looking toward the South and the East were the Assur-gate (leading to the old capital); Sennacherib’s Halzi-gate; the gate of Samas of Gagal, the gate of the god Enlil of Kar-Ninlil, and the “covered gate,” which seems to have had the reputation of letting forth the fever-demon. After this are mentioned the Sibaniba-gate, and the gate of Halah in Mesopotamia. This last must have been the extreme northeastern opening, now communicating with the road to Khorsabad, implying that Halah lay in that direction.
- The Gates–West:
The gates on the west or river-side of the city were “the gate of Ea, director of my watersprings”; the quay-gate, “bringer of the tribute of my peoples”; the gate of the land of Bari, within which the presents of the Sumilites entered (brought down by the Tigris from Babylonia, in all probability); the gate of the tribute-palace or armory; and the gate of the god Sar-ur–“altogether 5 gates in the direction of the West.” There are about 9 wide openings in the wall on this side, 2 being on each side of the Kouyunjik mound, and 2 on each side of that called Nebi-Yunus. As openings at these points would have endangered the city’s safety, these 4 have probably to be eliminated, leaving 2 only North of Nebi-Yunus, 2 between that and Kouyunjik, and one North of Kouyunjik. Minor means of exit probably existed at all points where they were regarded as needful.
- The Outer Wall: the Plantations:
To the outer wall of the city Sennacherib gave a Sumerian name meaning, “the wall which terrifies the enemy.” At a depth of 54 gar, the underground water-level, its foundations were laid upon blocks of stone, the object of this great depth being to frustrate undermining. The wall was made “high like a mountain.” Above and below the city he laid out plantations, wherein all the sweet-smelling herbs of Heth (Palestine and Phoenicia) grew, fruitful beyond those of their homeland. Among them were to be found every kind of mountain-vine, and the plants of all the nations around.
- The Water-Supply, etc.:
In connection with this, in all probability, he arranged the water-supply, conducting a distant water-course to Nineveh by means of conduits. Being a successful venture, he seems to have watered therewith all the people’s orchards, and in winter 1,000 corn fields above and below the city. The force of the increased current in the river Khosr was retarded by the creation of a swamp, and among the reeds which grew there were placed wild fowl, wild swine, and deer(?). Here he repeated his exotic plantations, including trees for wood, cotton (apparently) and seemingly the olive.
- How the Bas-Reliefs Illustrate the King’s Description:
Sennacherib’s bas-reliefs show some of the phases of the work which his cylinder inscriptions describe. We see the winged bulls, which are of colossal dimensions, sometimes lying on their sledges (shaped like boats or Assyrian ships), and sometimes standing and supported by scaffolding. The sledges rest upon rollers, and are dragged by armies of captives urged to action by taskmasters with whips. Others force the sledges forward from behind by means of enormous levers whose upper ends are held in position by guy-ropes. Each side has to pull with equal force, for if the higher end of the great lever fell, the side which had pulled too hard suffered in killed and crushed, or at least in bruised, workmen of their number. In the background are the soldiers of the guard, and behind them extensive wooded hills. In other bas-reliefs it is apparently the pleasure grounds of the palace which are seen. In these the background is an avenue of trees, alternately tall and short, on the banks of a river, whereon are boats, and men riding astride inflated skins, which were much used in those days, as now. On another slab, the great king himself, in his hand-chariot drawn by eunuchs, superintends the work.
- Nineveh the Later Capital:
How long Nineveh had been the capital of Assyria is unknown. The original capital was Assur, about 50 miles to the South, and probably this continued to be regarded as the religious and official capital of the country. Assur-nacir-Apli seems to have had a greater liking for Calah (Nimroud), and Sargon for Khorsabad, where he had founded a splendid palace. These latter, however, probably never had the importance of Nineveh, and attained their position merely on account of the reigning king building a palace and residing there. The period of Nineveh’s supremacy seems to have been from the beginning of the reign of Sennacherib to the end of that of Assur-bani-apli, including, probably, the reigns of his successors likewise–a period of about 98 years (704-606 BC).
- Last Days and Fall of Nineveh.
Nineveh, during the centuries of her existence, must have seen many stirring historical events; but the most noteworthy were probably Sennacherib’s triumphal entries, including that following the capture of Lachish, the murder of that great conqueror by his sons (the recent theory that he was killed at Babylon needs confirmation); and the ceremonial triumphs of Assur-bani-apli–the great and noble Osnappar (Ezr 4:10). After the reign of Assur-bani-apli came his son Assur-etil-ilani, who was succeeded by Sin-sarra-iskun (Saracos), but the history of the country, and also of the city, is practically non-existent during these last two reigns. The Assyrian and Babylonian records are silent with regard to the fall of the city, but Alexander Polyhistor, Abydenus and Syncellus all speak of it. The best account, however, is that of Diodorus Siculus, who refers to a legend that the city could not be taken until the river became its enemy. Arbaces, the Scythian, besieged it, but could not make any impression on it for 2 years. In the 3rd year, however, the river (according to Commander Jones, not the Tigris, but the Khosr), being swollen by rains, and very rapid in its current, carried away a portion of the wall, and by this opening the besiegers gained an entrance. The king, recognizing in this the fulfillment of the oracle, gathered together his concubines and eunuchs, and, mounting a funeral pyre which he had caused to be constructed, perished in the flames. This catastrophe is supposed to be referred to in Nah. 1:8: “With an overrunning flood he (the Lord) will make a full end of her place (i.e. of Nineveh),” and Na 2:6: “The gates of the rivers are opened, and the palace is dissolved.” The destruction of the city by fire is probably referred to in Nah. 3:13, 15. The picture of the scenes in her streets–the noise of the whip, the rattling wheels, the prancing horses, the bounding chariots (Nah. 3:2 ff), followed by a vivid description of the carnage of the battlefield–is exceedingly striking, and true to their records and their sculptures.
Ninevah in the Bible
Nahum 3:1 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
3 Woe to the city of bloodshed,
All of her is deception and plunder
never without prey.
Nahum delivers the prophetic decree upon Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the second world power of Bible history, the queen city of the earth at the time. Assyria was like a pack of lions on the hunt, as they were feared by all in the then known earth. Viciousness and inhumanity held sway in the supreme. It is by warfare that Nineveh enriched itself, becoming the greatest and most feared city of the day.
Genesis 10:9-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 He was a mighty hunter before* Jehovah. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before Jehovah.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went forth into Assyria, and built Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah, 12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.
* I.e., He was a mighty hunter in opposition to Jehovah. Lit in front of or before, but in the sense of defiance of and opposition to, as in the case of the same expression in Num. 16:2; Josh. 7:12-13; 1 Ch 14:8; 2 Ch 14:10; Job 23:4. Some Bible scholars attach a favorable sense to the Hebrew preposition meaning in front of or before, the Jewish Targums, the writings of the historian Josephus, and also the context of Genesis chapter 10 suggest that Nimrod was a mighty hunter in opposition to Jehovah.
The cruel and ruthless Nimrod was the cities founder; thus, it is hardly surprising that life in the day of Nineveh would be filled with bloodshed and cruelty. Nimrod was renowned as a “mighty hunter ‘before’” (in a negative and hostile sense; Heb., liphneh; “against” or “in opposition to”; compare Nu 16:2; 1Ch 14:8; 2Ch 14:10) or “in front of” Jehovah. It is true that some scholars view the Hebrew preposition in a favorable sense, meaning “in front of;” however, the Jewish Targums, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, as well as the context of Genesis chapter 10 paints a different picture of Nimrod, as a hunter in rebelliousness toward Jehovah.
If the suburbs of Calah and Resen were being considered, Nineveh made up one great city. It was for its great wickedness that Jehovah God sent Jonah the prophet to Nineveh. It was only by the Ninevites’ repentant attitude that they avoided be destroyed by God. However, it was not long that this great city and its inhabitants fell back into their former wicked ways. Throughout the period of influence of Kings Sargon, Sennacherib, Esar-haddon, and Ashurbanipal, Nineveh stretched out to the height of its wickedness and bloody undertakings. Ashurnasirpal, describes his punishment of several rebellious cities in this way:
“I built a pillar over against his city gate, and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted, and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up within the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes, . . . and I cut off the limbs of the officers, of the royal officers who had rebelled. . . . Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and their fingers, and from others I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers(?), of many I put out the eyes. I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts (tree trunks) round about the city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire . . . Twenty men I captured alive and I immured them in the wall of his palace. . . . The rest of them [their warriors] I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”
As the Assyrian army arrived back to Nineveh from a successful campaign, its captives were well aware of the horrors that awaited them, for they were in for unthinkable suffering and cruelty. As the soldiers came over the horizon, there would be numerous lines of captives, being led by cords that had hooks, which were pierced through the nose or lips. Many could look forward to being blinded by the King of Nineveh himself, who would use the point of a spear. Other prisoners awaited impalement, being hanged by their nude bodies upon pointed stakes that were run up through the stomachs into the chest cavities of the victims. Others still, were whipped or beaten severely and then had their skin removed from their body while still alive. It is this fear factor that made Nineveh the great military machine that would march on another city, and its inhabitants would surrender without a fight.
Nahum 2:9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 Plunder the silver!
plunder the gold!
There is no end of the treasure
or of the wealth of all precious things.
The campaigns of war were very profitable to the merchants of Nineveh, who were as numerous as the sands of the sea, or so it must have seemed. Wealth like a river during flood season poured into the great city. The shops throughout were filled with the most precious luxurious items and appliances that the then known world had to offer. What treasures fill this ancient city!
Regardless of Nineveh’s cruelty and viciousness, it was exceptionally religious. Unger’s Bible Dictionary (1965, p. 102) states: “These gods are invoked at times severally in phrases which seem to raise each in turn to a position of supremacy over the others.” Notice to the number of deities revealed in this section from the Annals of Ashurbanipal: “By the command of Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Ramman, Bel, Nabu, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ninib, Nergal, and Nusku, I entered the land of Mannai and marched through it victoriously. Its cities, great and small, which were without number, as far as Izirtu, I captured, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.”
The priests of Nineveh were not against war; to the contrary, they were supports of the nation’s primary source of income. In fact, they were largely the cause, stirring up trouble that would lead to war. This may not seem so surprising when one learns that their livelihood is supported by the conquest of war, as they would get their customary percentage before any other party. The reason for such is the ultra-religious society of the people, believing it was the gods, who gave them victory. Those greedy priests were thrilled at the sight of the beginnings of a war campaign, and the return of the military with its spoils.
Jehovah Decrees the Ruination of Nineveh
Zephaniah 2:15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
15 This is the exultant city
that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
“I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
hisses and shakes his fist.
2:15 Nineveh prided itself in its security and wealth. For generations the Assyrian army brought goods to Nineveh. The city enjoyed the spoils of war brought from conquered peoples. No one could remember a time of trouble, poverty, or insecurity. The city that would be destroyed and inhabited only by the beasts of the earth was this same city—a city of pride, one that dwelt securely. In pride the inhabitants of Nineveh said: “I am and there is none else.” “These words claim a status of absolute power and complete independence that in no way properly characterizes finite humanity.… Such arrogant, self-centered blasphemy can only lead to ruin.” The people of Judah must have thought of the words of the Lord when they heard these words. Repeatedly in the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah we are told that, “the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (Deut 4:35; see also Isa 45:5).
In the days of Isaiah, God had promised to punish the arrogance of Assyria. Though the Lord used the Assyrian as the rod of his anger, he also promised to punish Assyria because of such arrogance. “When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, ‘I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and haughty look in his eyes” (Isa 10:12).
Assyria would become a city of desolation, suitable only for wild beasts. Zephaniah spoke about Assyria’s future as if it had come to pass already (using the perfect “tense”). Nineveh’s future held only pain and desolation. All who passed by the ancient city would shrink back in horror. Scoffing and shaking the fists (lit., “hand,” echoing the word’s use in v. 13 and thus framing these verses) were gestures indicating revulsion, scorn, and horror.85 Those who saw the ruin of Nineveh would feel shock that such destruction could occur as well as relief that the “city of blood” (Nah 3:1) had been removed from the scene.
The Lord is sovereign over the land of Israel and over the entire world. No one and no nation can stand before the Lord. Zephaniah promised that the Lord would punish the wicked in Judah, but he also would punish the nations as well. The city built on the blood of oppressed peoples would become a lair for the beasts of the field. “Because this nation exalted itself to the highest heaven, it must be brought to the lowest hell.”
Such is the fate of all those who live in defiance of the Lord God. But how is that defiance expressed? For Zephaniah, the basic expression is pride. As Achtemeier phrases it:
Philistia’s sin is not specifically mentioned but her proud arrogance and blasphemy against the God of Israel had already given birth to legend in Israel (cf. 1 Sam 17). And it is precisely the pride of the nations (cf. Gen 11:1–9) which primarily characterizes them in these oracles, and which is the object of the divine wrath on his Day (cf. Isa 2:6–20): pride of wealth, alluded to with the word ‘Canaan’ in verse 5, a synonym for greedy traders, and with the mention of fine ‘cedar work’ in verse 14; pride of power, embodied in the boasts and scoffings of Moab and Ammon (vv. 8, 10; cf. Isa 16:6; Jer 48:7, 14, 17; 49:4) and in their grabs for territory (cf. Amos 1:13; Ezek 25:1–7); pride of independence and security and sovereignty, set forth in the taunt of verse 15 against Assyria (cf. Isa. 47:8, 10). The nations exulted in their pride (v. 15; cf. Isa 22:2; 23:7; 32:13; Zeph 3:11), but God’s exultation was to be the last word (3:17).
We should remember that God punishes arrogance and oppression. He desires humble submission to him and right relationships toward others.
The oracles against foreign nations are implied calls for repentance to God’s people. If foreign nations suffer for their pride and arrogance, will not God’s people do so even more? If God is going to destroy foreign enemies, does that not open new opportunities for his people and encourage them in gratitude and hope to seek him and his righteousness and humility? If God’s new picture of hope includes the Gentile nations along with the original people of God, should not his people jealously and zealously guard their relationship with him, making sure while new people are grafted in the old are not cut out?
Who are the foreign nations against whom God’s hand is stretched out today? We need again to hear the message of Zephaniah’s preaching against foreign nations as succinctly summarized by Achtemeier: “The Word—the word here of Zephaniah, and the word in the rest of the Scriptures—the word made flesh in Jesus Christ—stands against us and our sinful pride. It will now and always so stand if we ignore it or reject it or think it a word intended only for someone else. And what a terrible pit that would be! For the word of the Lord throughout the Bible is a word intended to be for us and not against us—a word intended to restore our life and to lead us into quiet pastures and to allow us to lie down at evening time in peace and security. Therefore, ‘seek the Lord … seek righteousness, seek humility.’ “ – Kenneth L. Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, vol. 20, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 467–469.
Nahum 3:5-7 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 Behold, I am against you,
declares Jehovah of armies,
and will lift up your skirts over your face;
and I will make nations look at your nakedness
and kingdoms at your shame.
6 I will throw filth on you
and treat you with contempt
and make you a spectacle.
7 And it will come about that all who look at you will shrink from you and say,
“Nineveh is devastated; who will grieve for her?”
Where shall I seek comforters for you?
3:5–7. Zephaniah’s reference to God’s unfailing justice is a veiled rebuke of the injustice prevalent in Judah. God is righteous. By contrast, Judah was unrighteous, but the people were unashamed of their sin. Mark Twain quipped, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” Judah needed to blush but felt no shame (2:1; Jer. 8:12). Such an attitude is indicative of a decadent society. God’s destruction of sinful nations was a warning to Jerusalem of the consequences of sin. Rather than repent, they were eager to act corruptly. Certainly, they should have learned from the destruction of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians less than one hundred years before (2 Kgs. 18:9–12; Jer. 3:6–8). Yet Judah would not heed God’s warning.—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (p. 103). B&H Publishing Group.
Enemy Armies Would Surround and Overwhelm Nineveh
Nahum 2:5-6 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
5 He remembers his officers;
they stumble as they march,
they hasten to the wall;
the siege tower is set up.
6 The gates of the river are opened;
and the palace is dissolved;
2:4–7. When David came to the throne, Israel had been locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Philistines for more than century. They were a threat to the very existence of Israel as a nation. With God’s help David’s forces finally gained the upper hand in several key battles (2 Sam. 5:17–25; 8:1). Philistia was located on the coastal plain of the Mediterranean Sea in ancient Canaan north of modern Tel Aviv south to the Gaza strip. Kerethite refers to peoples from Crete who lived in Philistia. Zephaniah predicted the extinction of Philistia’s peoples with Judah gaining their territory. Four of the five major Philistine cities are mentioned in order from south to north. Goliath’s hometown of Gath (1 Sam. 17:4,23) was situated farther to the east and is omitted. According to Wright, “Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Gath (Tell es-Safi) was destroyed in the mid-eighth century B.C. This coincides with an attack on the city by Judah’s King Uzziah described in 2 Chronicles 26:6. Biblical and Assyrian records listing the Philistine cities from about the middle of the eighth century B.C. on, fail to mention Gath, further corroborating Uzziah’s destruction of the city (e.g., Jer. 25:20; Amos 1:6–8; Zeph. 2:4; Zech. 9:5–7)” (Wright, 85). The name Palestine is derived from “Philistine.”—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (p. 101). B&H Publishing Group.
Nahum 3:2-3 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel,
galloping horse and bounding chariot!
3 Horsemen charging,
flashing sword and glittering spear,
hosts of slain,
heaps of corpses,
dead bodies without end—
they stumble over the dead bodies!
3:1–2. The description of the city clearly indicates Jerusalem, and in verse 7 this city is contrasted with the “nations” of verse 6. Once more Zephaniah pronounced divine judgment (woe, cp. Hab. 2) on Jerusalem for its many sins. In 1:2–18 the focus was on Jerusalem’s idolatry; in 3:1–7 at least ten sins are cited: oppression of others (v. 1), rebellion against God (v. 1), spiritual defilement (v. 1), disobedience (v. 2), lack of trust in the Lord (v. 2), wickedness of rulers (v. 3), corrupt religious leaders (v. 4), injustice, by contrast with a just God (v. 5), lack of shame (v. 5), and refusal to heed God’s warnings to repent (vv. 6-7). What an indictment!
Zephaniah had invited the people to “seek the LORD” (2:3), but they refused to draw near to … God. Judah had moved, not God. Like a loving father, the Lord still longed for his people to return to him (Joel 2:12; Zech. 1:3).
3:3–4. In these verses Judah’s corrupt leaders are addressed. Her political leaders’ oppressive behavior is compared to that of roaring lions and evening wolves who ferociously devoured their prey (cp. Mic. 3:9–10). According to Wright, “Zephaniah’s use of ‘evening wolves’ (3:3; cp. Hab. 1:8) to describe Judah’s judges was particularly sinister. Wolves habitually lay low throughout the day until dusk, striking when other animals are tired and ready to bed down for the night. They usually descend in packs, tearing their prey and gorging themselves on flesh. Jesus described false prophets as ‘ravenous wolves’ (Matt. 7:15 RSV), and the apostle Paul referred to false teachers as ‘fierce wolves’ not sparing the flock (Acts 20:29 RSV)” (Wright, 87).
Degradation among the people often reflects a failure of spiritual leadership. Not surprisingly, Zephaniah declared that apostasy among Judah’s spiritual leaders was rampant. The word treacherous essentially denotes unfaithfulness in dealings with God or other people. These prophets were probably guilty of unfaithfulness in both areas. Priests were to teach the law (Ezra 7:12; 2 Chr. 15:3), but these had violated the law and profaned the sanctuary, evidently by their idolatry (Zeph. 1:4–5) and by offering blemished animals.—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (pp. 102-103). B&H Publishing Group.
Nineveh’s Days of Plundering Were Over
Nahum 2:11-12 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
11 Where is the lions’ den,
the feeding place of the young lions,
where the lion and lioness prowled,
and the lion’s cub, with none to disturb them?
12 The lion tore enough for his cubs
and strangled prey for his lionesses;
he filled his lair with prey
and his dens with torn carcass.
In verse 11 the Lord promised to demonstrate his supremacy over these false deities by destroying their idols. Ultimately, all nations of the earth would worship him, thus proving that the Lord is the earth’s greatest, and only, God. This wonderful promise will be fulfilled at Christ’s return. For their impudence, the Lord vowed to make Moab like Sodom and Ammon like Gomorrah, a terrifying fate (Gen. 19:24–25).
2:12. Cush was a nation situated south of Egypt roughly equivalent to modern Sudan and Ethiopia (“Cushites,” NIV; “Ethiopians,” KJV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV). Ethiopians fought with Pharaoh Shishak against Rehoboam (2 Chr. 12:3), and the Ethiopian general Zerah attacked Asa, king of Judah (2 Chr. 14:9). For a time (during Egypt’s twenty-fifth dynasty), Ethiopians ruled over both Egypt and Ethiopia. Ethiopia would not escape God’s judgment (cp. Isa. 18; Ezek. 30).—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (p. 101). B&H Publishing Group.
If the priests, princes, and merchants of Nineveh thought of this as an impossibility; then, they need to consider the destruction of the Egyptian city of Thebes. Notwithstanding an intimidating military force and in spite of its bragging that it was too strong to be captured or entered by force, Thebes was demolished to the ground; and it was devastated by none other than the Assyrian king himself. Actually, King Ashurbanipal made an engraving concerning the fall of Thebes: “The entire city . . . my hands captured—silver, gold, precious stones, the contents of his palace, all that there was; parti-colored raiment, cloth, horses and people, male and female.” So the prophet says to Nineveh: “Are you any better than Thebes, that sat by the great Nile? . . . yet even she became an exile; she went into captivity; even her children were dashed in pieces . . . You too shall reel and swoon; you too shall seek refuge from the foe.” Nah. 3:8-11, ASV.
The city of Nineveh was to be a desolate place, even though they likely thought otherwise, as the words of Jehovah never fail to come true. “The Babylonian Chronicle, give a detailed description of the campaign against Nineveh: ‘they marched along the bank of the river Tigris and … against Nineveh … .they encamped[?] From the month of Sivan to the month of Ab three UŠ [measures … they advanced?] A strong attack they made against the city, and in the month of Ab, [the … th day the city was captured …] a great defeat of the chief [people] was made. On that day Sinsar-iskun, the Assyrian king.… . The great spoil of the city and temple they carried off and [turned] the city into a ruin-mound and heaps of debris …’ (CCK, pp. 59, 61). The excavations at Kuyunjik have remarkably corroborated this description of Nineveh’s complete destruction.” After the fall of Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire, the ancient world must have had a sigh of relief, especially neighboring lands. The prophet Nahum did not even fail to bring this joyful attitude out in his prophecy.
Nahum 3:19; 1:9; Zeph 2:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 There is no easing your hurt;
your wound is beyond healing.
All who hear the news about you
clap their hands over you.
For upon whom has not come
your relentless cruelty?
9 What do you plot against Jehovah?
He will make a complete end;
trouble will not rise up a second time.
13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.
3:19. Assyria’s wound was incurable, and her injury was fatal. In spite of the failed attempt by King Ashur-uballit (612-609 B.C.) to keep the dynasty alive in Haran, Assyria would pass from the stage of world history into the graveyard of nations. Like Humpty Dumpty, the nation could never be put together again, a fact confirmed by archeology. Yet there would be no mourning or sorrow over her demise. Assyria had inflicted endless cruelty on surrounding nations, and the world was glad to see her go. Everyone who hears the news of her destruction will rejoice (1:15).
1:9. Nineveh did not go quietly, yet their resistance against Israel’s omnipotent God was futile. Whatever they plotted against the LORD would fail. We are reminded of the psalmist’s words:
Why do the nations rebel and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and against His Anointed One: “Let us tear off their chains and free ourselves from their restraints.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them. Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath (Ps. 2:1–5 HCSB).
About one hundred years earlier, Assyria’s King Sennacherib had challenged the Lord. This resulted in his own destruction and that of his army (Isa. 37:9–38). Nineveh would have no second opportunity this time to oppose God, for he would completely destroy them.—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (p. 12, 14, 102). B&H Publishing Group.
The desolation of Nineveh was its ruination. It was so completely destroyed that it became a forgotten site. We are informed by the Greek historian Xenophon’s Anabasis that, as he passed through the area of the old Nineveh in the fifth century B.C.E., he did not even hear the mention of its name. What though of the other famous Greek historian Herodotus? He says of the Tigris, as “the river upon which the town of Nineveh formerly stood.” A mere two centuries since this queen city of the world had been destroyed and Herodotus barely gives it attention, as though history had swallowed it to the point of caring about its former existence. In Alexander the Great’s victory over Gaugamela, he had to march right over the former ruins of Nineveh. The world’s greatest general wins a famous battle within a stone’s throw of Nineveh ruins, and his historians, aside from Arrian, do not even make reference to Nineveh. The famous Greek writer, Lucian, wrote about 150 C.E., not a trace of it remains.” It is as though it has vanished from history.
Before the science of archaeology of the nineteenth century C.E. made the discoveries that silenced the Bible critics, they were so bold as to suggest that Nineveh of the Bible never existed at all. Many had visited the area, looking for signs of the ancient Nineveh. In the late 1500s, Sir Anthony Shirley poured over the area, concluding, “Nineveh, that which God Himself calleth That great Citie hath not one stone standing which may give memory of the being of a towne.”
Archaeology Would Tell Another Story
Since the early 1800’s, archaeologists have excavated various parts of Nineveh and its suburbs. The excavation area is remarkable. It contains a mound is possibly one of the largest in the whole of Mesopotamia. What have the archaeologist uncovered in the ruins of Nineveh? As to Nineveh, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land states . . .
The remains of Nineveh are hidden in two mounds on either bank of the Hawsar River. One is Kouyunjik Tepe, where the palaces of Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal were discovered, and the other, on the south bank, is Nebi Younis (the Prophet Jonah), where the palace of Sennacherib stood. These palaces were unusually large, built upon raised platforms about 75 feet high. At the gates of the palaces stood winged lions with human faces. The walls were lined with alabaster and other beautiful stones. On the walls were reliefs depicting the military campaigns of the kings of Assyria and their hunting expeditions, plus mythological and other scenes. Sennacherib’s palace occupied the southeastern quarter of the city. It was here that the relief portraying the siege and conquest of Lachish was discovered. The city wall was more than 3 miles long and according to the king’s description it had no less than 15 gates. Sennacherib encircled the inner wall with an outer one which, in his words, ‘was high like a mountain’. The whole city was surrounded by gardens full of scented plants and irrigated by channels that drew water from the neighboring rivers. The great library of Ashurbanipal, containing 25,000 clay tablets dealing with historical, literary and religious matters, was found in Kouyunjik.
Its destiny was warranted and inevitable. Today its desolate-looking ruins and mounds are a haunt for wild creatures, and the pillars of palaces are perches for birds. The traveler to Iraq who visits Nineveh’s ruins does well to reflect on the prophet Zephaniah’s words, words that express God’s resolve:
Zephaniah 2:13-15 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
a dry waste like the desert.
14 Herds shall lie down in her midst,
all kinds of beasts;
even the owl and the hedgehog
shall lodge in her capitals;
a voice shall hoot in the window;
devastation will be on the threshold;
for her cedar work will be laid bare.
15 This is the exultant city
that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
“I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
hisses and shakes his fist.
2:13–15. Assyria, located to the north, had harshly oppressed Judah for a hundred years. So complete would be the destruction of Assyria’s magnificent palaces and buildings that desert birds and wild beasts would make their homes in their desolate ruins. Zephaniah referred to Nineveh as the carefree city because its people felt safe and secure within its great walls. Assyria’s pride is expressed by the words, I am, and there is none besides me. Yet, at about this very time, the king who would destroy Nineveh, Nabopolassar, assumed the throne in Babylon (626 B.C.). Within fourteen years Zephaniah’s prophecy of Nineveh’s overthrow would be fulfilled (612 B.C.). God hates pride.—Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) (p. 102). B&H Publishing Group.
by T. G. Pinches &d Edward D. Andrews
- Free, J P. Archaeology and Bible History. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1964.
- Hoerth, Alfred. Archaeology and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
- Negev, Avraham. The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd ed. . New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1996.
- Kenneth L. Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, vol. 20, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999)
- Miller, Stephen. Holman Old Testament Commentary – Nahum-Malachi: 20 (Holman Old Testament Commentary) B&H Publishing Group.
-  Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, by D. D. Luckenbill, 1926, Vol. I, pp. 145, 147, 153, 162.
 D. J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (1956)
 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 3, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1988; 2002), 540.
 Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, 3rd ed. (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1996).
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