Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice

The ancient city of Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River near the site of the modern city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, thus uniting the East and the West. It received wealth from many sources, so that it became one of the greatest of all the region’s ancient cities, and the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

According to the Bible, Nineveh was established in about 2000 BC (a round number) by Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:11). It or Assyria are mentioned in the Bible books of Psalms 83 (~980BC), Jonah (~750BC), Hosea (~720BC), 2 Kings 19 (~700BC), Isaiah (~700BC), Micah (~700BC), Zephaniah (~630BC) and Nahum (~620BC). The Assyrian kings mentioned in the Bible reigned between 745BC and 627BC.

As Assyria is only mentioned in a list of nine enemies, it seems that it wasn’t a major threat to Israel in the 10th century BC (Ps. 83:5-8). But from 900 to 600 BC the Assyrian Empire expanded, conquered and ruled the Middle East, including Mesopotamia, Egypt, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and parts of today’s Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They were famous for their cruelty and fighting prowess and they used war chariots and iron weapons, which were superior to bronze weapons.

Assyria is not known to have come in contact with Israel until the reign of Jehu, who paid tribute to Shalmaneser II in 842BC. But Assyria was a major enemy of Israel and Judah in the 8th century BC. According to the Bible, the Assyrians threatened and attacked the kingdoms of Israel and Judah from ~790BC (2 Ki. 15:19) to ~710BC (2 Ki. 20:6) and to ~690BC (2 Chron. 33:11).

The Assyrians invaded the kingdom of Israel and after the fall of Samaria in 722BC, they brought people from Mesopotamia and Aram (Syria) to settle in Samaria (Ezra 4:2). God used the Assyrians to capture the kingdom of Israel.

Sennacherib nearly captured Jerusalem in 700BC but “the angel of the Lord went out and put to death 185,000 in the Assyrian camp” (2 Ki. 19:35) followed by the assassination of Sennacherib (2 Ki. 18:13 – 19:37; Isa. 36-37).

But in 612BC Nineveh was destroyed  by the Babylonians (Ezek. 32:22-23). And the Assyrian empire then came to an end by 605 BC when they were defeated by the Babylonians in the battle of Carchemish.

As the word “Nineveh” occurs most frequently in the books of Jonah (7 times ) and Nahum (9 times), we will now look at their messages.

Jonah’s warning

In about 750BC, God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn it of the imminent danger of divine judgment. Jonah was commanded, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jon. 1:1NIV). Nineveh was called a “great city” because it was the largest city if its day, having more than 120,00 inhabitants (Jon. 4:11). But Jonah went in the opposite direction and went through a bad experience! After God got his attention, he was told again, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you” (Jon. 3:2). This time he obeyed and went to Nineveh and proclaimed “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jon. 3:4). Then all the people, including the king repented of their wicked ways (see Appendix). After this God “relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened” (Jon. 3:10). This shows that God’s mercy can extend to all people. The repentance of wicked Gentiles was an example for the Israelites to follow.

Jonah was angry that God showed compassion to the Assyrians who lived in Nineveh. But later God told Judah, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezek. 33:11).

We know from history that Nineveh continued for about 140 years before it was destroyed by the Babylonians. So, God’s mercy was shown for 140 years before justice prevailed.

Nahum’s warning

But a while after Jonah’s warning, the people of Nineveh returned to their wicked ways of idolatry, cruelty and pride. The sins of Nineveh included plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution, witchcraft, and commercial exploitation (Nah. 1:11; 2:12-13; 3:1, 4, 16, 19).

The book of Nahum, written in about 620BC, is comprised of detailed predictions of the destruction of Nineveh. It says, that God “will not leave the guilty [Assyria] unpunished” (Nah. 1:3). The book ends with the destruction of the city for her oppression, cruelty, idolatry and wickedness. Nahum predicted that the city would never be rebuilt, “Nothing can heal you [Nineveh]; your wound is fatal” (Nah. 3:19). Nineveh was destroyed in 612BC and never rebuilt and within a few centuries it was covered with wind-blown sand. Zephaniah also predicted the Babylonian invasion of Assyria “leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert” (Zeph. 2:13-15). Even the site of Nineveh was lost until it was found by archaeologists in 1845.

Prior to Jonah and Nahum, in about 740-680BC, Isaiah also predicted the demise of Assyria.

Isaiah’s warning

Isaiah said that God would use the Assyrians to devastate the land of Judah as punishment for their sinfulness (Isa. 7:17-25; 10:5-6). And Aram (Syria) and Israel would be invaded as well (Isa. 8:6-10). And that’s what happened in the late 8th century BC.

But God promised to destroy the Assyrians because of their arrogance (Isa. 10:5-34; 14:24-27; 30:27-33; 31:8-9; 37:36-38). And that’s what happened in about 610BC.

Archaeology of Nineveh

In about 700 BC, Sennacherib made Nineveh a truly magnificent city. At this time, the total area of Nineveh comprised about 7 square kilometres (1,730 acres), and fifteen great gates penetrated its walls. An elaborate system of eighteen canals brought water from the hills to Nineveh, and several sections of a magnificently constructed aqueduct were discovered at Jerwan, about 65 km (40 miles) distant. Sennacherib also built a magnificent palace with 80 rooms and incredible sculptured walls. Assyrian rulers celebrated their military victories by having representations of these carved into the walls of their palaces.

The ruins of Nineveh are surrounded by the remains of a massive stone and mudbrick wall dating from about 700 BC. About 12 km in length, the wall system consisted of an ashlar (squared building stones) stone retaining wall about 6 m (20 ft) high surmounted by a mudbrick wall about 10 m (33 ft) high and 15 m (49 ft) thick. The stone retaining wall had projecting stone towers spaced about every 18 m (59 ft). The stone wall and towers were topped by three-step merlons (upright sections of a battlement). There were 15 monumental gateways in the city wall.

Archaeologists unearthed the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh with its 22,000 cuneiform inscribed clay tablets in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages and Sennacherib’s annals, which were written on clay hexagonal tablets.

The Bible says that Sennacherib  king of Assyria “attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them” (2 Ki. 18:13). This included Lachish, the second largest city in Judah. The Bible also says that Sennacherib’s forces besieged Jerusalem, but didn’t capture it. Instead “he withdrew to his own land in disgrace” (2 Chron. 32:21). This was confirmed by the records in Sennacherib’s annals, which mention his victories, but not his defeats. The historical records of Assyrian kings and their conquests matched the biblical account. These archaeological discoveries showed that the historical accounts in the Bible were about real kingdoms and real historical figures.

Jesus’s warning

When Jesus rebuked the Jewish religious leaders in about AD 30 He said, “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation [the Jewish religious leaders] and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here [Jesus]” (Mt. 12:41; Lk. 11:32). After Jonah preached, the Ninevites repented (Jon.3:5-10). But the Jewish leaders criticized Jesus rather than accepting what He said. Because of this at the coming day of judgment the Ninevites will condemn these Jewish leaders for failing to receive someone who was greater than Jonah. As Jesus and His ministry were “greater than Jonah”, they were more worthy of acceptance.

Discussion

In Jonah’s time, the people of Nineveh experienced God’s mercy when they repented of their sins. But a later generation experienced God’s judgment because they failed to repent of their sins.

Peter preached to Jews saying, “Repent, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Repentance is a change of mind arising from sorrow for sin and leading to transformation of life. It is the right response to Christ’s death and resurrection and leads to forgiveness of sins (Lk. 24:46-47).

A children’s song says,

Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
And your sins will be wiped out.

Doesn’t matter how many,
Doesn’t matter how bad,
Doesn’t matter how often,
Doesn’t matter how sad,
If you turn to God with a heart that’s true,
This is what He says to you.

Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
Repent, and turn to God,
And your sins will be wiped out.

Today we all have the choice to either experience God’s mercy (salvation and heaven) through Jesus or God’s judgment (punishment and hell) through ignoring or rejecting Jesus. Meanwhile, God is patient, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise [to judge the ungodly], as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). God is delaying this judgment to give people more time to repent of their sinfulness. The judgment of God is inescapable unless we repent and are forgiven (Rom. 2:3). But this judgment can be delayed (Rom. 2:4). It’s wise to accept God’s mercy through Jesus, but dangerous to ignore or reject it.

Here we see two contrasting aspects of God’s character, “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). God’s mercy, patience and salvation is an example of His kindness. And God’s justice and judgment is an example of His sternness.

Lessons for us

How would people respond today if someone like Jonah urged them to repent and turn to God? That is what Israel Folau did, and he was criticized, rejected and banished. That’s how the Jewish religious leaders treated Jesus.

Who are we like, the Ninevites or the Jewish religious leaders? The repentance of the Ninevites is an example for us to follow. It also shows that God’s mercy through Jesus extends to everyone. But it’s only available to us while we are alive! Let’s access God’s mercy through Jesus today and avoid God’s coming judgment.

Appendix: When the Ninevites repented (Jonah 3)

1Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways [repented], He relented and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.

Written, July 2019

Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles in Jericho

Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel

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