ASSYRIA

ASSYRIA WAS ONE of the 'Great Powers' of the ancient world.  Historic records show that the Assyrians were a Semitic people and settled in their land in about 2300 BC.  They called their country, their capital city and their national god by one name - Assur.  The city of Assur was in the south of the country on the west bank of the river Tigris.  The second city, Nineveh lay east of the river, opposite modern Mosel, some 109 kilometres (68 miles) north of Assur.  The Hebrew name occurs frequently in the Bible, being translated as Assyria, Assur or  Asshur. 

Map of the Assyrian Empire

Assyria, which is always carefully distinguished from Babylonia stands for the world power whose invasions of Israel and Judah were divinely permitted, although it too suffered destruction for its godlessness. 

Assyria was a prosperous nation.  A favourable climate and ample water supplies from the River Tigris resulted in an abundance of crops: barley and wheat on the plains and grapes, olives, apricots, cherries and other fruit on the hills. Neighbouring peoples, who lived in harsh desert and mountainous regions, were attracted to this abundance and posed a constant threat to the Assyrians.  Little wonder then that the story of Assyria is one of constant warfare. 

BRIEF HISTORY OF ASSYRIA 

Between 1500 and 1100 BC Assyria became a leading state in the Middle East, ruling as far west as the River Euphrates.  Then Aramaean invaders from the desert completely overran the Assyrian homeland. This began a period of decline that lasted to about 900 BC. 

Over a period of time, a line of vigorous Assryian kings began to regain their lost lands.  The warrior kings Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC) captured many cities and made their kings vassals, but these soon rebelled after the Assyrian army had gone home.  Tiglath-Pilesar III (745-727 BC) was the first Assyrian king to establish an effective system of provincial governors with firm control over their regions. 

Eventually under  Esarhaddon (681-669 BC) and Ashurbanipal (669-627 BC) the Assyrian empire became too large, encompassing Egypt, Syria, Israel, North Arabia and parts of Turkey and Persia. It proved impossible to defend all the frontiers and defeat all the rebels.  In 625 BC, Babylon won independence, destroyed Nineveh and in 612 BC brought the Assyrian empire to an end.  

INVOLVEMENT WITH ISRAEL AND JUDAH 

You might wonder why Assyria is the subject of Bible prophecy.  The Assyrians were never God's chosen people like the Jews.   At that time they were a divided nation – the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  We need to go back initially to God's promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (See article on page 9).  God promised that he would bless them and ‘I will curse him who curses you’ (Genesis 12.3 NKJV).  Later when the nation of Israel were given the Law which was to regulate their lives, they were warned that disobedience would merit God's judgments.  In Deuteronomy, we read that amongst many judgments: 

‘The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favour to the young. And they shall eat the increase of your livestock and the produce of your land, until you are destroyed; they shall not leave you grain or new wine or oil, or the increase of your cattle or the offspring of your flocks, until they have destroyed you.  They shall besiege you at all your gates until your high and fortified walls, in which you trust, come down throughout all your land; and they shall besiege you at all your gates throughout all your land which the LORD your God has given you’ (Deuteronomy 28.49-52 NKJV). 

In spite of many warnings, God's people continued to sin against Him and the time came for God to use the mighty nation of Assyria to punish them.  The prophet Isaiah was inspired by God to make at least nine prophecies about Assyria.  Here are just three excerpts: 

‘The LORD will bring the king of Assyria upon you and your  people and your father's house(Isaiah 7.17 NKJV).

 

‘Now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up over them the waters of the River, strong and mighty-- the king of Assyria and all his glory; he will go up over all his channels and go over all his banks’ (Isaiah 8.7 NKJV).

 

‘Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger and the staff in whose hand is my indignation.  I will send him against an ungodly nation, And against the people of my wrath I will give him charge…’ (Isaiah 10.5,6 NKJV). 

From the mid-ninth century BC, at the time of Ahab king of Israel, the kings of Assyria repeatedly attacked Israel.  Soon Jehu king of Israel (841-814 BC) was paying an annual tribute to Shalmaneser III of Assyria, a fact depicted on Shalmaneser's ‘Black Obelisk’ found at Nimrud and now in London in the British Museum.  

Around 735-715 BC, Ahaz king of Judah, who had abandoned God, asked Tiglathpileser III of Assyria to help him fight Syria and Israel. He agreed and defeated them both but Judah had now become a subject kingdom of the Assyrians in return for their help. 

THE NORTHERN KINGDOM OF ISRAEL DESTROYED

When Hoshea king of Israel rebelled and refused to pay the yearly tribute, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V began a three-year siege of Samaria the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.  The Israelites were exiled to Assyria and the Northern Kingdom was destroyed.  In this way the punishment prophesied to Israel was meted out by the Assyrians acting under the hand of God: 

‘Now the king of Assyria went throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria and besieged it for three years.  In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria…For so it was that the children of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and they had feared other gods, and had walked in the statutes of the nations whom the LORD had cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made. (2 Kings 17.5-8 NKJV) 

HEZEKIAH AND JERUSALEM

Soon after the destruction of Israel, the Assyrians defeated Egypt. Then, in 701 BC, the powerful king Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem, because King Hezekiah of Judah had stopped paying tribute to the Assyrians and had joined a rebellion against their rule.  In 2 Kings chapters 18 and 19, there is an account of the how the righteous King Hezekiah dealt with the threats of this mighty Assyrian king. The odds against him seemed overwhelming but he trusted in God to save the city of Jerusalem and it's people. 

God listened to his prayer and predicted through the prophet Isaiah that the city and its inhabitants would be spared the wrath of the Assyrian army encamped outside the city walls. It was a prophecy that led to a miracle.  God said to the Assyrian king, ‘Because your rage against me and your tumult have come up to my ears, therefore I will put my hook in your nose and my bridle in your lips, and I will turn you back by the way which you came’ (2 Kings 19.28 NKJV). 

The prophecy was very specific: 

 'Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: “He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shield, nor build a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same shall he return; and he shall not come into this city, says the LORD.  For I will defend this city, to save it for my own sake and for my servant David's sake.  And it came to pass on a certain night that the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians one hundred and eighty-five thousand; and when people arose early in the morning, there were the corpses - all dead”’  (2Kings 19.32-35 NKJV). 

It is interesting to note that in the contemporary records of Assyria no mention is made of this significant defeat, but this is understandable humanly speaking. The records of the invasion of Israel are inscribed on what archaeologists call ‘Sennacherib's Prism’ (see picture).  It records how the invincible Assyrian army assaulted and captured forty-six of King Hezekiah's walled cities and that he shut up Hezekiah ‘like a bird in a cage in the midst of Jerusalem, his royal city.’  

Six-sided clay prism containing an account of Sennacherib's attack on Judah

There is no explanation as to why his mighty army failed to take the relatively small city of Jerusalem.  The Bible supplies the answer. Although God was in the process of punishing Israel for their disobedience, He listened to the prayer of His servant Hezekiah and determined to save the city. Because God controls all things, He was able to prophesy with absolute certainty that, against all the odds, the Assyrians would not even enter the city. After the massacre Sennacharib returned to Nineveh, where he was murdered by two of his sons. 

ASSYRIA'S CRUELTY AND ARROGANCE

The Assyrians were noted for their brutality, and their kings were often depicted as gloating over the gruesome punishments inflicted on conquered peoples. They conducted their wars with shocking ferocity, uprooting whole populations and deporting them to other parts of the empire. 

The prophet Ezekiel in chapter thirty-one gives a vivid picture of the arrogance of Assyria.  At the time that the prophets Amos and Hosea were sent by God to announce to His people that He would ‘spare them no longer’ (Amos 7.8) but would send them into exile.  God sent Jonah to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria to warn it of the imminent danger of divine judgment.  

THE DESTRUCTION OF ASSYRIA FORETOLD

Their repentance was short lived and the prophets Nahum and Zephaniah predicted the fall of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh: 

‘The burden against Nineveh...The LORD has given a command concerning you: “Your name shall be perpetuated no longer. Out of the house of your gods I will cut off the carved image and the molded image. I will dig your grave, for you are vile.”’ (Nahum 1.1,14 NKJV) 

And he will stretch out his hand against the north, destroy Assyria, and make Nineveh a desolation, as dry as the wilderness. The herds shall lie down in her midst, every beast of the nation. Both the pelican and the bittern shall lodge on the capitals of her pillars; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be at the threshold; for he will lay bare the cedar work.  This is the rejoicing city that dwelt securely, that said in her heart, “I am it, and there is none besides me.” How has she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down! Everyone who passes by her shall hiss and shake his fist. (Zephaniah  2.13-15 NKJV) 

The fall of Nineveh, great capital city of the Assyrian empire, occurred in 612 BC. The combined forces of the Medes, Babylonians and Scythians, laid siege to the city, which fell as a result of the breaches made in the defences by the flooding rivers. (Nahum 2.6-8)  The city was plundered by the Medes and left to fall into the heap of desolate ruins which it is today (Nahum 2.10), a pasturing-place for the flocks (Zephaniah 2.13-15) which gives the citadel mound its modern name of Tell Kuyunjik (‘mound of many sheep’).

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS

A gold necklace, anklets, crown and armlets dating from the 8th and 9th centuries BC which were among the Assyrian funeral artefacts found in the tombs at Nimrud, not far from the site of Nineveh in what is now northern Iraq. 

Today Nineveh and the surrounding terrain consists of desolate mounds, uninhabited desolation in dramatic vindication of God's prophecies.  Assyria was punished for her part in God's retribution on His disobedient people. 

Because of the reputed greatness and grandeur of the mighty Assyrian Empire, archaeologists have for a long time been attracted to the area. Excavations were started in about 1840 but with little success. Later diggings resulted in the discovery of many reliefs and inscriptions, some of which are in the British Museum. These with the epics, histories and other texts and letters have made Assyrian literature well known. 

The Daily Telegraph on March 12, 2002 reported that Iraqi archaeologists had discovered ancient Assyrian jewels and gold funereal artifacts that rival the famous Tutenkhamun treasures from Egypt.  There were hundreds of solid gold objects, many exquisitely engraved and set with semiprecious stones.  

REASSURANCE

This is yet another find that confirms the Bible record of the greatness and importance of the nation of Assyria and indeed, the fulfillment of God's prophecies. Bible students can be reassured that God's prophecies which are still to be fulfilled, will come true as they did in the past. 

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