Downfall of the Bloody City

The prophet Nahum offers a doorway into a powerful morality tale.

The Assyrian king Sennacherib reviews a parade of Judean prisoners after the fall of the city of Lachish in 701 B.C. A wall relief in the Southwest Palace of Nineveh.


I don’t think I’ve ever heard a preacher give a sermon on the prophet Nahum, one of the 12 minor prophets in the Old Testament. There’s a good reason why. Nahum is grim reading.

He celebrates–in fact, gleefully rejoices–in the downfall of Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. That great metropolis fell to a besieging army of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians in 612 B.C. They sacked it and left it in ruins.

For the prophet, this sack represents divine judgment on what he calls “the bloody city.” Woe to the bloody city, the prophet sings, all full of lies and booty–no end to the plunder (Nahum 3:1).

He goes on to say that nobody will grieve its demise:

…all who look on you will shrink back and say,

Wasted is Nineveh; who will bemoan her?

Whence shall I seek comforters for her? (Nahum 3:7)

The answer to his question is no one.

The steam-rolling force of Assyrian imperialism

Nahum speaks on behalf of the many victims of Assyrian imperialism. They included thousands upon thousands throughout the ancient Near East. Among them was the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital of Samaria. The Assyrians captured this city in 722 B.C. and wiped the kingdom of Israel off the political map of the ancient Near East. A large proportion of its population was deported (the origin of the legend of the ten lost tribes of Israel).

Assyrians acquired and maintained their empire by their highly effective military machine. Assyrian armies were renowned for their ruthlessness. When they conquered hostile cities, they subjected the population to mass executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and impaling. Those who were fortunate to survive faced mass deportation out of their homeland.

Knowing this, I realize why Nahum delights in Nineveh’s downfall. Still I cringe when I read his words.

Assyrian history as a morality tale

To my surprise, however, I found my thoughts retuning to Nahum and the downfall of the Assyrian Empire as I read the news accounts of the recent Brexit election in Great Britain. Nahum, despite all his grimness, bears witness to a fact of history that it is confirmed over and over again.

That fact is that states, empires, and civilizations all rise and fall, inevitably. Like individual lives, no human social organization is immortal. Sometimes death for a state or empire comes rapidly and without much advance warning, like a heart attack. That was the case with the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrian people had a long history in the ancient Near East. Their heartland was what today we call northern Iraq. Their kingdom rose and ebbed several times through the centuries.

Nothing in its previous history matched, however, the spectacular success of Assyrian expansion in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries B.C. When the powerful king Ashurbanipal died in 627 B.C., that expansion stretched from the Nile River in Egypt to the highlands of Persia, from the sands of Arabia to the mountains of the Caucasus. It was the greatest empire the ancient Near East had seen up to that time.

Yet 20 years later that mighty empire had vanished from the political scene, never to rise again. The Assyrians were exhausted from constant war. It depleted their manpower and their economic resources. That gave its enemies an opportunity. The Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians became allies in opposition to Assyria. The Medes captured the city of Nippur in 614 and the three allies the city of Nineveh in 612.

The remnants of the Assyrian government under King Asshur-uballit II retreated west to Harran. There nearby the joint Assyrian-Egyptian armies met in battle with the Babylonians under the new potentate Nabopolassar. The Assyrians and Egyptians suffered a crushing defeat in 609 B.C.

After the battle Asshur-uballit and his army vanished into the mists of history. Neither was heard of again. Thus the mighty Assyrian Empire died.

This story is a striking morality tale. Powerful empires can fall quite suddenly and unexpectedly. The British Empire was the greatest power on earth in the 19th century. As a result of the recent Brexit vote, if Scotland and Northern Ireland do choose to break away from the United Kingdom, the once great British Empire could itself be reduced to the rump state of England alone.

If this happens, the British Empire will join the list of all those other powerful empires that have fizzled out in history before. They include Achaemenid Persia, Rome, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, and the USSR. And we can be sure the churn of history will not stop. That is worth considering as Americans face their own choices in the coming election.

Inviting in the Devil

An ancient Bible story serves up a warning to Christians in the current political campaign.

A scene from the obelisk of Shalmaneser III, showing the Israelite king Jehu paying obeisance to the Assyrian emperor.

 Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, we read ancient stories that seem to have no relevance to us today. So we shelve them away out of our consciousness. But sometimes–and now is one of those times, in my opinion–those ancient stories come keenly alive.

The Old Testament passage I am thinking of is Isaiah 7-12. These five chapters may be hard for an uninformed reader to follow, even though they contain some of the most beloved prophecies that we read in our Christmas services every year. But if you read them in their historical context, they speak of something much more sinister than Christmas tinsel.

The chapters deal with a national crisis that hits the kingdom of Judah under the reign of king Ahaz. Two of Judah’s neighbors, the kingdoms of Aram (centered in Damascus) and of Israel (centered in Samaria) have joined forces to invade Judah. Their intention is to overthrow Ahaz and install a puppet on his throne.

Faced with this deadly peril, Ahaz searches for a savior for his kingdom. He looks at the far-off but mighty Assyrian empire centered in Mesopotamia. Assyria is a powerful military machine and has subdued vast portions of the Middle East. Ahaz contemplates inviting its emperor to come to his rescue. That emperor will bully Aram and Israel into submission.

As Ahaz contemplates this course of action, God sends the prophet Isaiah to the king to warn him not to do this. Instead the prophet calls upon Ahaz to place his trust in God. If so, in a couple of years, Aram and Israel will no longer be threats because they will no longer be kingdoms.

As a seal guaranteeing that this will happen, Isaiah announces that God will give Ahaz a sign. He declares this sign in a passage that has reverberated through the 2,000 years of Christian history:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Christians have read this passage as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. In an extended sense, the New Testament so reads it. But in its original context, it was meant to be an assurance to Ahaz to place his trust in God’s care.

Despite repeated words from the prophet, Ahaz ignores this word from God. He does invite in Tiglath-Pileser III, emperor of Assyria. Assyria invades, annihilates the armies of Aram and Israel. Judah is saved, but also now serves as a vassal of Assyria.

Under Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, Judah seeks to re-establish its independence, political and spiritual. This provokes another Assyrian invasion that ravages the land. Judah’s cities are razed to the ground, their populations slaughtered or carried into exile, while the Assyrian king gloatingly boasts of his prowess in the carvings on his steles and palace walls.

Jerusalem survives only by the skin of its teeth. God directly intervenes for its salvation. But under Hezekiah’s heir, Judah becomes thoroughly submissive to Assyria, even being required to install the religious images of Assyria’s gods in the Jerusalem temple. Judah remains under Assyria’s thumb until the Assyrian empire suddenly collapses in 612-609 B.C.

Ahaz invited in the devil. He saved his throne and his life, but at the cost of corrupting Judah’s political independence and spiritual identity. He ignores the word of God that comes to him through the voice of Isaiah. He chooses political expediency over trust in God.

How An Ancient Story Comes Alive

How does this ancient story come alive for me today? By nature, I am reluctant to bring religion into politics. Often this ends up besmirching the name of God. But as I watch the current campaigns under way for the presidency, I am constantly reminded of this ancient Bible story and its warnings.

One of the striking features of the current Republican campaigns for the Republican nomination is the fervent support many Christians are giving to Donald Trump. This surprises many observers, including myself, because Trump seems to manifest many features that are at serious odds with an orthodox Christian lifestyle and morality.

One can hardly imagine someone who in his swaggering speech and values exemplifies less the spirit of Jesus. Trump trumpets the supreme value of winning, whereas Jesus teaches his disciples, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)

So why are so many Christians throwing their support to Trump? I have asked myself that question. And in reading political commentators on the campaigns, I’ve noted that repeatedly observers report that many Christians in America feel under siege. They feel they are being attacked by the dual enemies of secularism and liberalism. The political leaders they elected cannot protect them. So they are looking for a strong arm to come to their protection.*

Trump promises to be that, saying he will protect Christianity. So they are flocking to an alliance with this seemingly strong arm, trusting that he will not turn on them in the end.

When I read news reports like this, I think of Ahaz and his appeal to the Assyrian emperor. An ancient story is repeating itself.

And so the preaching of Isaiah speaks to us again. In the words of the prophet:

For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:11-15)

Instead the prophet calls upon Judah to place its trust in its Lord, as he and his family will do:

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isaiah 8:17-18)

As Christians ponder where to give their support in this campaign, I ask them to read again and ponder this ancient story. For I fear that those Christians who look upon Donald Trump as the great savior and protector of Christianity are inviting in the Assyrian emperor into their land of Judah. The consequences for Judah were fatal in the end, politically and spiritually. They may likewise be for the cause of American Christianity today.

* One of those observers is the conservative opinion writer Charles Krauthammer, who wrote a column titled “Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith,” published in The Washington Post, on March 3, 2016.