The Incurable Wound

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

The Incurable Wound

Nationalism

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Many parts of Jonah’s story are well-known: he ran from the presence of God, trying to sail far away; he was caught in a large, fierce storm; he was swallowed by a big fish of some sort, saving his life; he eventually goes to Nineveh as commanded, and the people there repent of their sins (Jonah 1:1-3:10). It sometimes seems as if the biggest controversy in the story of Jonah involves what type of sea creature swallowed him and the credibility of such a story.

To focus on the large fish, however, is to miss the point of the story. Why is Jonah fleeing from the LORD in the first place? What is the problem with the command to go to Nineveh and to cry against it (Jonah 1:2)?

It would be easy to imagine that Jonah was fearful for his safety; perhaps, if we felt charitable toward him, we might imagine that he did not want to see so many people suffer the consequences of their sin. Yet Jonah does not seem to be afraid of the Ninevites, nor is he distressed at the possibility of so many being destroyed. Sadly, alas, the real reason is far more disturbing: Jonah flees because he does not want to see God relent of the disaster He intends for Nineveh.

Few statements in Scripture are as ironic as Jonah’s complaint before YHWH: “I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah 4:2). Most people, when considering these attributes of God, are quite thankful; where would any of us be if God were not gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness? Is Jonah ungrateful?

It is not as if Jonah does not appreciate God’s graciousness, mercy, slowness to anger, and lovingkindness when it is directed toward himself and his fellow Israelites. He does not, however, want to see those same qualities exhibited toward the Ninevites.

Nineveh was the great city of the Assyrians, and their capital during many periods of their history. All evidence points to its mammoth size and thus level of importance: a city requiring a three days’ journey to go through is quite a city indeed (Jonah 3:3). Such a place was only possible on account of the empire the Assyrians were building, and they were quite brutal about it. Few nations have proven more bloodthirsty or barbarous than the Assyrians. No one really liked them. Everyone feared them. Eventually, when their empire did come to an end, no one was very sorry to see it go.

The Israelites had all sorts of justifiable reasons for hating the Assyrians. The Assyrians were a perennial enemy, threatening Israel’s stability for most of its existence. The Assyrians would eventually overrun the Kingdom of Israel, absorbing it into their empire, exiling most of its residence, and re-populating the land with foreigners (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-41). The Assyrians would spread their campaign of terror to Judah as well; Jerusalem barely escapes thanks to God’s deliverance (2 Kings 18:13-19:36, Isaiah 1:1-9). One could make a strong argument that Assyria was the most devastating enemy Israel ever faced.

As a prophet in the final moment of sunshine in the history of the Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 14:25), it is highly likely that Jonah knew the impending doom for his people; even if God had not specifically revealed to him who would be the agent of Israel’s demise, it would not be difficult to deduce who it would be. Thus, YHWH is asking Jonah to go and preach a message of repentance to Israel’s greatest enemy, the strongest threat to the homeland, and the ultimate agent of God’s wrath against Israel.

Jonah’s anger, while still worthy of censure, is nevertheless now understandable. It is of the greatest strategic benefit for Israel and its welfare if God destroys Nineveh and its people; as the greatest existential threat to Israel, God’s covenant people, it should almost be expected for God to destroy them. But Jonah has an inkling of what will happen; he cannot endure the paradoxes. A prophet of Israel who was likely mostly ignored at home is heard and heeded by uncircumcised pagans; God relents of the decision to bring disaster upon Nineveh, but will ultimately not relent of the decision to bring disaster upon Israel; God saves the very people who will bring great destruction upon His people within three generations. As a good Israelite, fully aware of YHWH’s deliverance of Israel His people, confident in YHWH’s sovereignty, likely proud of his status as a member of God’s covenant people, this seems too much to stomach.

Jonah is made to look rather narrow-minded and prejudiced in Jonah 4:1-11, and that is precisely the point of the whole story of Jonah. Throughout the story, God is faithful, even though Jonah most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Jonah would have been destroyed; he repented, and God rescued him, but he could not stand the idea of God doing the same to the Ninevites. Yet God is consistent throughout, for He is Sovereign, Lord of all nations, not just Israel.

We should not beat up too much on Jonah, for Jonah in many ways represents his entire nation. Everything said of Jonah is true of Israel: God consistently proved faithful to Israel even though Israel most of the time is not. Without God’s love, gentleness, and kindness, Israel would have never left Egypt, and would have been given over to destruction long before. When Israel repented, God rescued His nation, but Israel could not stand the idea of God providing such favor to the heathen pagans.

Jonah’s story is told to warn all of us of the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that often accompanies fervent nationalism. It is very easy for us to look at everything through the lens of the welfare of the particular nation-state under which we live; it is easy to want what is best for our country and our ideology, and the idea that other nation-states, countries, and/or people with other ideas could be blessed by God can seem intolerable. “We” appreciate the blessings and favor of God; but when “they” would receive those same blessings and favor, we might be tempted to be as Jonah, and be angry about it.

Nevertheless, God is not merely the God of one nation; He is the Sovereign Lord of all peoples, countries, nationalities, and cultures. He wants to show lovingkindness, grace, patience, and mercy to everyone, not just a select few (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9). Let us be thankful that God has displayed love, mercy, and kindness toward us, and let us not begrudge others when He displays the same to them as well!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Nationalism