The great palaces of Nineveh are long gone. What is left is uninhabitable rubble and dust. Even that was unseen until archaeologists unearthed it. And what archaeologists discovered in the last century was blown up by ISIS (Daesh) forces five years ago.
Every great culture in history has fallen. Egyptian, Assyrian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires are dust. The British empire, one where the sun never set, is a shadow of its former glory. Western culture may be on one of its final iterations, to be replaced by something else (China? Russia? Something yet unknown?) God uses the fall of nations to accomplish His salvation to those who call out to Him.
The story of Nineveh illustrates just how merciful God is, and also how just. The people of Nineveh had a moment of repentance, but within two generations had reverted to their former habits. The last two chapters of Nahum describe the totality of the final judgement on Nineveh: overtaken militarily, the great fates destroyed, the river flooding through the city – all is desolation and ruin by flood, fire, battle, and scattering.
What is the purpose for such complete annihilation?
Nahum says,”For the Lord is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel.” God will use His people to rebuild on the ruins of the evil ones. What we who call ourselves believers do now in the time of crisis, God will use to rebuild and revive His church. I can’t say what that may look like; I am no prophet. But I do know that He is faithful and He will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:24.)
It seems like every blockbuster movie or popular novel tries to create a sequel that matches the drama and characters of the original. Most of the time, the sequel falls flat. Either the original writers don’t return or there’s some formula that they try to squeeze the story into or they just run out of ideas. Now and then, however, there is a sequel that not only maintains the energy of the original, but adds to the initial storyline in a meaningful way.
The prophet Nahum was responsible for the sequel to Jonah. The setting is the same, Nineveh. The characters have changed, from Sennacherib who called for repentance to Ashurbamipal, who reigned over Assyria at the height of power. The conflict is also the same: defiant and evil people running into the omnipotent God.
Jonah may have been upset at the Ninevites repentance, but God relented on destruction for that entire generation and the one that followed. However, by the time Nahum preached, the Ninevites had returned to their old ways with a vengeance. They were more cruel, more violent, and more evil than ever before, and God said, “Enough.” This time there is no offer of repentance. There is only the promise of utter destruction, which history verifies. God made a complete end to Assyria as a world power.
In the middle of Nahum’s description of Assyria’s utter destruction, he offers comfort to those who take refuge in God. His name means “consolation” and he lives that name even in the middle of catastrophe. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power. The Lord is good. The Lord is a stronghold in the day of trouble. The Lord knows those who take refuge in Him. The Lord brings good news and peace. We can trust Him I the middle of the chaos. That is good news, indeed!
Jonah opens with the Lord telling Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). What was so great about Nineveh and why was God interested in it in ~750 BCE?
Nineveh was one of the most beautiful cities of the ancient world. Archaeologists believe that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually in Nineveh. King Sennacherib made Nineveh the capital of ancient Assyria, building roads and canals throughout the city so there was adequate water for both citizens and agriculture. Situated in Iraq near modern-day Mosul, its walls were covered in lime and the city was surrounded by a double moat. It would reflect the sun from both walls and water, so it would shine across the desert. At this time in history it was known for its warriors, education, and art. And its taxes. (Always taxes) Later it would add a massive library of 30,000 clay tablets, including tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. The primary gods were Ashur and Ishtar. It was a prosperous city, its wealth coming from its place as a crossroads of east and west.
As I dug into the history of Nineveh, I began to think that the city represents all the major cities of history. It was absolutely a real place, and Jonah’s story is recognized by all three major religions in the region still. A version of the story is told in the Quran , interpreted as a call to patience in adversity. Jewish people tell the story on Yom Kippur, the solemn day of atonement. In Christianity, the Syriac Orthodoxchurch holds a three day fast as they remember Jonah and seek reconciliation with God and with each other. Jonah’s burial site was in Nineveh until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Archaeological digs continue there, in spite of almost total devastation.
Nineveh was not a Jewish city, so sending a Jewish prophet there seems curious. Moreover, the inhabitants of Nineveh were hostile to the Jews, which explains why Jonah resisted God’s call to go. The kings (most famously Sennacherib) were cruel warriors who enslaved those whom they captured and those who did not bow down to them. They levied taxes on their own people, the people they conquered, and any merchant passing through the city or its strongholds. It represented plurality and secularism, two attributes common in the modern West.
I imagine Nineveh was like San Francisco or New York City. Government sponsored massive public works, focused on a humanistic center of progress, and promoted absolutely intolerant of anyone who might challenge their superiority. These cities are centers of tourism and wealth, beautiful on the surface, but just below the gleaming surface lurks the ugly reality of corruption, rot, and death. So, in a sense, Nineveh is a metaphor for any place, ancient or modern that turns priorities upside-down. Instead of seeking the welfare of the people, city leaders focus on adding to their power by shining the outside image so that no one notices the evil that happens in the darker corners.
With that in mind, I am beginning to understand why Nineveh. Knowing history, the city was one of the greatest in the Assyrian Empire, but is now little more than dust. It was headed toward destruction by the activities of its elite when God woke up Jonah and told him to preach to the people there.
There are plenty of places filled with people headed toward destruction in the glittering cities of the modern world. God still calls his people to go and preach repentance and make disciples. The question becomes, when is a city too far gone for God?