The Nations Of The Bible: Assyria

April, 1995


Assyria's place on the map was northeastern Mesopotamia, along the Tigris River and its tributaries. Its capital was Nineveh, located near the Tigris River. The author of Genesis (2:14), mentions the Tigris River by another name, "Hiddekel" (cp.Dan.10:4). Eventually, the Assyrian empire extended from the Persian Gulf (The Lower Sea), throughout the Mesopotamian regions, southeastern Asia Minor, Lebanon, Syria, Canaan, Egypt, and Ethiopia (Isa.20).


Of Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the Assyrians came from Ham (Gen.10:6-11), and thus were related to the Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Canaanites. The Assyrians descended from the man named Asshur. After travelling north from Shinar, where there were four great cities founded by his ancestor, Nimrod "the mighty hunter before the Lord" (Gen.10:8-12), Asshur built, among other cities, Nineveh, the future capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Nahum tells us that the merchants of Assyria were more numerous than "the stars of heaven" (3:16). Among the goods in which Assyrians traded were high-quality apparel, especially blue-colored clothing, exquisite embroidery, and fine furniture, expertly made of cedar "bound with cords" (Ezek.27:23-24). In Nahum, we are told that "there is none end of the store and glory out of all the pleasant furniture" (2:9). Except for Babylon, God's people were harmed more by Assyria than any nation, but Assyria did this damage not for any long-standing hatred, such as the Edomites or Moabites held against Israel. Assyria warred against Israel simply as another nation along the road to empire building.

Except for a couple of geographic directions in Genesis and a prophecy of Assyria's future ascent and fall in the book of Numbers (22:22, 24), Assyria is unmentioned in the Bible story until 2 Kings 15, which is late in the history of the Old Testament. At that time, Assyria is already the dominant military power in the Middle East. In 2 Kings 15, Tiglath-Pileser (Pul), the powerful King of Assyria was paid a thousand talents of silver by Menahem, King of Israel, as a bribe to confirm him on the throne. Menahem had assassinated the king before him, who in turn had assassinated the king before him. Israel was falling apart, and outside help was needed for the one on the throne to feel secure. Through the tender-hearted prophet Hosea, God condemned Israel's security alliance with Assyria and warned of dire consequences for trusting in Assyria (Hos.5:13; 7:11; 8:9-10; 11:5; 12:1). Hosea, at one point, prays a prayer of repentance in Israel's stead for the sin of depending upon Assyria and other gods for safety (14:1-3), as if he were trying to lead Israel in a prayer of repentance.

Two years after Menahem died, his son Pekahiah was assassinated by Pekah, who then became king in Israel. In his days, Tiglath-Pileser (also called "Pul") returned and took captive the inhabitants of the northernmost part of Israel and all trans-Jordan (2Kgs.15:29). Israel's days as a sovereign nation were numbered.

Judah's King Ahaz travelled to Damascus to meet with Tiglath-Pileser and to try to solidify an alliance (2Kgs,17:10). There, Ahaz saw an altar of Assyrian design which so impressed him that he sent a detailed description of it to Urijah the priest and commanded one like it to be built at Jerusalem. This being done, Ahaz removed the altar of the Lord from its place before the temple, to the north side of his new and improved altar, designed by heathen (2Kgs.16:10- 16). Ahaz further sought to win the friendship of the king of Assyria by setting apart an area of the temple complex called "the covert for the sabbath" to the King of Assyria (2Kgs.16:18). Finally, however, Tiglath-Pileser proved to be more difficult to win than Ahaz had hoped. He took the riches which Ahaz offered, and then turned upon Ahaz "and distressed him, but strengthened him not" (2Chron. 28:20-21). What a waste! Ahaz spent the gifts of God, and found he had purchased nothing but trouble! He put his faith and hope in the arm of man, and the arm of man took away the best things of Ahaz's life. This treacherous behavior of Tiglath-Pileser is one example of God's description of Assyria oppressing His people without provocation (Isa.52:4).

Ahaz's mixing of the Assyrian religion with the way of the Lord was repeatedly and vehemently condemned by God as "whoredom" (Ezek.16:28; 23:1-12). In this parable from Ezekiel, Israel and Judah have played the whore (i.e. mixed religions with) Egypt and Assyria, and God promised to turn their "lovers" against them with a vengeance (23:9-10, 23). So, the very ones whom God's people tried to please, pleased themselves of all their treasures. She sold out her God to the Assyrians, and He sold her into slavery and ruin at their hands. They had contempt for Israel and Judah the way some men feel hatred and contempt for a woman whom he lures into sin (cp. 2Sam.13:1-18).

It was in the fourth year of the reign of Ahaz's righteous son Hezekiah that Shalmaneser, the new king of Assyria, laid siege to Samaria, Israel's capital (2Kgs. 18:9). It seemed to be a common occurrence in the ancient world that, when a sovereign died, the conquered territories rebelled (especially the ones farther from the center of the kingdom) and his successor was required to prove himself strong enough to hold the system together. It wasn't like having to conquer new territory, but much effort and ability was required. Israel's last king, Hoshea, probably rebelled against the Assyrians when Tiglath-Pileser died, and Shalmaneser was required to prove himself worthy to own the title which his father had left to him. In Israel, he proved himself worthy. Just as Hosea had warned, Israel was ravaged (Hos.11:5-7).

Samaria was starved into submission after three years of siege (2Kgs.18:10), and the population of Israel was deported to far away places in Assyria (2Kgs.17:1-41; 18:11), never to return. Foreigners conquered by Assyria in other lands were brought into Israel's empty land and settled there (2Kgs.17:24-34). There they remained throughout the rest of Old Testament history (Ezra 4:2). The kingdom of Israel was finished. Only the tribal "nation" of Judah remained of the kingdom which Saul, David, and Solomon ruled.

For the one in search of the knowledge of God, the story of Jonah contains a lesson of crucial importance, almost never noticed by the typical reader. That lesson involves the place to which God sent Jonah to preach. That place was Nineveh, heavily populated capital of Assyria (120,000 people according to Jonah 4:11). In God's inimitably just way, He used this nation (Assyria) which repented at the preaching of Jonah to destroy Israel who rejected God's prophets. Through the preaching of Jonah, Assyria bowed the knee before Jehovah, in deep contrition and fear. There is no better example of the perfect justice of God to be found in the Old Testament books than this. The nation that repented was used to destroy the nation that would not.

After the complete destruction of Israel, Assyria was near the height of her political and military influence. But just as God raised up this nation to do His bidding, it would be God alone who shortly would bring about its spectacular end (Isa.10:12-19; Hos.1:7).

Five years after the destruction of Israel, the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, marched against Judah, as Isaiah had prophesied (7:17-20), and took all the defenced cities (2Kgs.18:13). King Hezekiah begged Sennacherib to forgive him (possibly for rebelling at the death of Shalmaneser), to cease from the destruction of his tiny kingdom, offering to pay any amount which Sennacherib demanded (2Kgs.18:14a). Hezekiah was required to pay three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold, and in order to do this, Hezekiah "gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasures of the king's house. "At that time did Hezekiah cut off the gold from the doors of the temple of the Lord, and from the pillars which Hezekiah king of Judah had overlaid, and gave it to the king of Assyria" (2Kgs.18:14b-16). We find, however, in the verses of Scripture which immediately follow, that Sennacherib sent an army to Jerusalem, demanding unconditional surrender, threatening to kill any who refuse (2Kgs.18:17,28-32).

Isaiah knew that Judah's hope in its resistance against Assyrian plans to carry them away captive was not in any military or political power, for Jehovah had raised up Assyria for the purpose of punishing His people for their wickedness (Isa.10:5-7). There is no power against God. By the same token, however, Isaiah knew fifteen years before the time that God had determined to break the back of Assyria by Himself at Jerusalem (2Kgs.18:13; Isa.14:24-28; also, 30:31; 31:8-9). This would be a victory which would glorify none but God, as Hosea had prophesied years before (Hos.1:7). The high-water mark of Assyria was prophesied to be when it reached the "neck" of the nation of Israelites (Isa.8:7-8). Isaiah saw Assyrian hands around the neck of his people when he saw Assyrian tents pitched around the city of Jerusalem. And he knew that deliverance, like the Assyrian general, Rabshekah, was just outside the gates.

The Assyrian general, in the name of Sennacherib, mocked the God which Hezekiah was telling the people to trust (2Kgs.18:28-35; 2Chron.32:9-17; Isa.36:13-20). It was the Assyrian general's fatal mistake. "Then Rabshekah stood and cried with a loud voice in the Jew's language, and spake, saying, `Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria. Thus saith the king, "Let not Hezekiah deceive you, for he shall not be able to deliver you out of my hand. Neither let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord, saying, `The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city shall not be delivered into the hand of the king of Assyria. . . .' Hath any of the gods of the nations delivered at all his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? . . . Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?"'"

God had finished with His tool from Assyria. All the punishment which God had planned for His people had been accomplished. In response to an insulting letter from Sennacherib, God sent an insulting message (2Kgs.19:20-28; Isa.37:14-29), and one night which followed, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers fell dead in the Assyrian camp, for "the Lord sent an angel, which cut off all the mighty men of valor, and the leaders and captains in the camp of the king of Assyria" (2Kgs.19:35; 2Chron.32:21; Isa.37:36). The eventual collapse of the Assyrian empire was inevitable. Sennacherib departed and returned to Nineveh, where he was murdered by two of his own sons "as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god" (2Kgs.18:36-37; 2Chron.32:21; Isa.37:38). As a nation, Assyria retained some control of its empire for several decades. Hezekiah, even after this great deliverance, was given a sign from the Lord that He would still protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians (Isa.38:5-8). Assyria even had enough power to come take Manasseh, Hezekiah's wicked successor, prisoner for a short while (2Chron.33:11-13). It was about ninety years after Jerusalem's miraculous deliverance that the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho was sent by God to the Euphrates River, to fight a famous battle in world history, the battle of Carchemesh (2Chron.35:20). It would be one of the last significant battles any Assyrian army would fight.

After all was said and done, Assyria was given a place in hell, though in its time of glory on earth it "caused terror in the land of the living" (Ezek.32:21-23).

Back to Top