Your destruction is like an incurable wound; your demise is like a fatal injury! All who hear what has happened to you will clap their hands for joy, for no one ever escaped your endless cruelty! (Nahum 3:19)
Who could have seen it coming?
The Neo-Assyrian Empire was the great superpower of the day, featuring effective leadership and dominance in strength and power to a degree never before seen in the ancient Near Eastern world. Nineveh seemed to be the capital of the world, full of the wealth and the goods of nations from Europe to Africa and deep into Asia. The Assyrian army was notorious for its cruelty, but it had been the catalyst for the end of nation after nation. The Assyrians had leveled and rebuilt Babylon; they had humiliated Egypt and had sacked Thebes. King Ashurbanipal had just finished eliminating Elam and the Elamites, a nation which had been around for as long as anyone could remember, as a going concern. He would be remembered forever as one of the greatest of the kings of Assyria, overseeing the Assyrian Empire at its strongest, the “King of the Universe,” a great patron of the arts, and the collector of a great library of Mesopotamian literature.
At the same time, a prophet from the rarely faithful vassal Kingdom of Judah pronounced the doom of Assyria. YHWH declared through Nahum that Nineveh and the Assyrians had acted like wanton prostitutes practicing sorcery, seducing and enslaving the nations in their economy and ways, and thus He was against them. They had terrorized the world; the time would soon come when they would become terrified of their enemies. They thought they were superior to the nations they conquered, but would soon learn they were no better. They would be devastated and no one would lament; in fact, everyone who would hear about their demise would rejoice, having remembered the cruelty they had suffered from the Assyrians.
We can easily imagine how such a message might have been heard by Ninevites in Ashurbanipal’s day. Such sounded like wishful thinking from a bunch of restive nobodies in the middle of nowhere. As if the great and mighty Assyrians would be thus humbled! As if Nineveh, the center of the world, would be so easily overthrown! Many may have even laughed at the prospect or the possibility. Assyria’s enemies may have enjoyed the prospect but would have good reason to doubt its possibility.
But then Ashurbanipal died, likely in 631 BCE; his son Ashur-etil-ilani, likely a weak and ineffective king, would only reign for four years, and then another son, Sinsharishkun, took over the throne. Sinsharishkun was almost immediately confronted by a civil war against a general who aspired to the throne; in the meantime, the Chaldean Nabopolassar was able to take over Babylon, which was never controlled by the Assyrians again. Sinsharishkun was able to put down the revolt against his rule, and successfully recaptured some lost territory in Mesopotamia, but suffered another revolt in 622. Nabopolassar pressed his advantage and pushed north, entering Assyrian territory, and defeated the Assyrian army many times. If it had just been a conflict against the Chaldean Babylonians, Sinsharishkun and the Assyrians might have been able to hold firm if not prevail; but when Cyaxares and the Medes invaded from the east in 615, the doom of Assyria was at hand. Sinsharishkun had been able to successfully defend Assur, the ancient heart of their land, from the Chaldeans in 615; in 614 it fell to the Medes. Nabopolassar and Cyaxares made an anti-Assyrian pact, and in 612 their combined armies marched on Nineveh. Two months later the town was taken, ravaged, and burned to the ground. Sinsharishkun is presumed to have died in the fighting. We have some records of one Ashur-uballit II, likely Sinsharishkun’s son, who was proclaimed king at Harran but fled three years later and vanished from the record; the Egyptians would try to help prop up the rump state of Assyria for awhile but to no avail. Thus, for all intents and purposes, Sinsharishkun was the last king of Assyria.
Twenty years. It had only taken twenty years for Assyria to go from its greatest extent to complete destruction and devastation. Thus Nineveh and Assyria were exactly what Nahum had prophesied they were. They were no better than those they had defeated. They had generated intense dislike and hostility because of the cruelty they had inflicted; when their enemies obtained an advantage, there would be no mercy. As the Assyrians had destroyed Babylon, so the Babylonians destroyed Nineveh. There would be no renaissance or renewal for Assyria; this was the end. A nation which had existed since around 2500 BCE fell completely in half a generation.
There are many who remain skeptical about many of the messages of the prophets and the way they would be fulfilled. All of those messages would find their fulfillment, but often would take much longer than many expected. No such ambiguity exists about Nahum’s message: he prophesied it at some point after 671 BCE, and it was finished by 609. The world it imagined would have been unthinkable until it took place; but then it happened. Who could have seen it coming? Those to whom YHWH had spoken.
Those of us who live long after such events took place should still give heed. God would indict Babylon for the same kind of whoredom and sorcery for which He had indicted Assyria; Rome would also fall under the same condemnation.
We can therefore see a trend at work. Powerful rulers over prosperous and successful empires frequently boast of their great exploits and endurance. Their cities glisten with wealth and the fruit of power and prosperity. Everything looks stable; people expect things to continue as they have in the past.
But then, all of a sudden, disaster strikes. Difficulties which have been manifest for those who had eyes to see now undermine the presumed strength of the nation. Collapse, destruction, and devastation may come quickly and thoroughly; it may be drawn out for years, decades, or even centuries. But the end would indeed come.
Who could have seen it coming? Those who would heed what God has spoken. Power and prosperity remain ephemeral; everything seems to go on as it always has until it no longer does. We should not trust in princes or the powers of this world; instead, we should put our trust in the God who sees all things and who will judge. May we trust in God in Christ and obtain life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry