What Happened to Nineveh?
Winged Bull excavated at Tell Nebi Yunus by Iraqi archaeologists at Nineveh, Nebi Yunus. Iraqi archaeologists excavate the monumental entrance to a late Assyrian building. The large head of a bull-man sculpture lies in a passageway.
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson November 28-December 4: Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah
Nahum prophesied around 663 to 654 BC,1 “And it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her? whence shall I seek comforters for thee?”2
Closer to 612 BC, Habakkuk said, “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you. For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans [later the Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every strong hold; for they shall heap dust, and take it.”3
At about the same time, Zephaniah prophesied, “And he [God] will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness…This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.”4
At this time, the city of Nineveh comprised around 2.7 square miles (1,730 acres), surrounded by huge walls, with fifteen great gates giving access to the city. An elaborate system of eighteen canals and aqueducts (one 40 miles long) brought water to Nineveh from the hills. The city probably had 150,000 inhabitants, about twice as many people as Babylon, making it the largest city in the world at the time.5
Nineveh boasted at least nine temples at its prime. The largest of those was built by King Sennacherib around 700 BC as a “palace without a rival” and covering an area of over 1,300,000 square feet (around 30 acres). It contained at least 80 rooms, lined with sculpture and reliefs. The building was nearly 140 feet tall, and the foundation alone contained some 160 million bricks. Many of the temple doorways were flanked by colossal stone statues of Assyrian gods, known as lamassu, with human heads, wings, and the body of either a lion or bull, and weighing up to 30 tons. The stone for those statues had been transported from quarries some 31 miles away.6
How could such a great city be “laid waste” according to an insignificant “prophet,” named Nahum, from a tiny village, Elkosh, that nobody had even heard of? Even Habakkuk, who may have been a Levite and musician in the Temple at Jerusalem would not have been anyone of importance to the Ninevites7 because Jerusalem was only a town with a population of not more than 2,750 people.8 Even though Zephaniah was a great-great grandson of King Hezekiah,9it is likely that no one in Nineveh had heard of him either.
Who was going to lay waste the great city of Nineveh – the Babylonians [Chaldeans], the Medes, the Persians, the Scythians, the Cimmerians (people of the Caspian steppe)? Assyria had already conquered all of them, and they were all under Assyria’s yoke. Nineveh was too mighty and too heavily fortified for any of those other peoples to lay it waste.
None-the-less, less than sixty years after Nahum proclaimed God’s prophecy against Nineveh, and shortly after Habakkuk’s prophecy, the great city was laid waste – starting from the inside. Indeed, the end began as early as thirty years after Nahum declared the prophecies. Around 627 BC, upon the death the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian Empire began to be torn apart from within as the result of a series of civil wars among rival claimants to the throne. Then, in 616 BC, seeing the weakened condition of their oppressors, Assyria’s former vassals, the Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians, attacked. Four years later, in 612 BC, Nineveh was sacked and razed. Archaeologists have since found numerous unburied skeletons at the site of the ancient city – left in the wake of the attackers and the inhabitants attempting to flee. The Assyrian empire ceased to exist and was divided between the Medes and Babylonians.
By late antiquity, most of what had been the great city of Nineveh was uninhabited and by the 13th century it was almost entirely ruins. The huge statues and reliefs that once so proudly adorned Nineveh have now been excavated and shipped off to museums around the world. Muslims constructed a shrine on the site of the city to the prophet Jonah, but that shrine was destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in 2014.10
Nahum had warned, “Thy shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria: thy nobles shall dwell in the dust: thy people is scattered upon the mountains, and no man gathereth them.”11 And Habakkuk said, “Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity!...for very vanity?” “What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols? Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.12 Zephaniah stated, “…the unjust knoweth no shame. I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste, that none passeth by: their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, that there is none inhabitant. I said, Surely thou wilt fear me, thou wilt receive instruction; so their dwelling should not be cut off, howsoever I punished them: but they rose early, and corrupted all their doings.”13
Yet Habakkuk said that even though, or perhaps because, the great nations of his time, especially Assyria, would be destroyed, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places. To the chief singer on my stringed instruments.”14And furthermore, in the midst of all his prophesying doom to Nineveh, Habakkuk proclaimed two of my favorite scriptures, “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea… But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.”15
Then Zephaniah prophesied of the great day of gathering, “Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack. The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing. I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden. Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame. At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord.”16
The prophecies of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah were all fulfilled, to the very letter. What was unimaginable at the time, the great Assyrian city of Nineveh is now a desolate place, the land of jackals, owls, and archaeologists. God created the laws that govern natural disasters as well as man-made disasters. As a result of those laws, bad things can happen. Natural and man-made disasters can sweep up the wicked and the righteous. Those who do not heed the warnings of the prophets, may be caught up in those disasters. People who heed the prophetic warnings may flee from those sites before the disaster, or at least be better prepared to face the disaster. There are also laws that govern the good things that happen to those who listen to what the prophets teach. Both good and bad result from the natural laws, by which God created the universe. Those same natural laws even govern personal disasters that befall us. Whether we experience the good or the bad depends on how much we focus on God and the words of His prophets. Remember, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but [JST “until”] he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.”17 Even those very personal disasters, such as losing a son to war before his 26th birthday, which Kathleen and I have experienced first-hand, are tempered by the knowledge that we will live beyond death and be with our son and the rest of our family eternally.
Malachi referred to the coming of Christ as, “…the great and dreadful day of the Lord…”18 It will be a great day for those of us who harken to the voice of the lord, but a dreadful day for those of us who “dwelt carelessly,” that say in our hearts, “I am, and there is none beside me,” and that buildeth up to their own vanity. The same God who has created laws that can bring unbelievable destruction upon humankind, also created the laws that can bring unbelievable peace, and comfort, and gathering to those who have chosen to follow Him and His prophets. He will “work a work in your days, which ye will not believe” both for good and for ill, depending entirely upon which side of the road we stand.
1. Nahum 3:7
2. see also Swindoll, Chuck, overview of Nahum in God’s Masterwork, insight.org/resources/bible/the-minor-prophets/nahum
3. Habakkuk 1:5-10
4. Zephaniah 2:13, 15
5. Ishtar Broadcasting Corporation, ishtartv.com/en/viewarticle,38768.html, retrieved 25 November 2022
6. Russell, John Malcolm, Sennacherib's "Palace without Rival" at Nineveh, University Of Chicago Press, 1992
7. Barber, Cyril J., Habakkuk and Zephaniah In Everyman's Bible Commentary, Moody Press, Chicago, 1985
8. Niditch, Susan, ed, The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel, Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, p 224, 2016
9. Buttrick, George Arthur, ed., The Interpreter's Bible, vol. 6: Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Twelve Prophets, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1955
10. Webb, Peter, Nineveh and Mosul, in O. Nicholason, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity, Oxford University Press, vol. 2, p. 1078, 2018
11. Nahum 3:18
12. Habakkuk 2:12-13; 18-19
13. Zephaniah 3:5-7
14. Habakkuk 3:18-19
15. Habakkuk 2:14, 20
16. Zephaniah 3:14-20
17. Amos 3:7
18. Malachi 4:5