The Assyrian Empire and Zephaniah’s Prophecy

The late Assyrian Empire was fiercely hated across the ancient world. A formidable military opponent, the Assyrians built their great Mesopotamian cities on the back of a disposable labor force, conscripting conquered people from across the Middle East into slavery and toil. Under the divine assurance of their god Ashur, the Assyrian kings ruled ruthlessly while they mass produced iron weapons and chariots for endless war.

For 200 years the mighty cities of Assyria were safe and secure. Reigning from their mighty capital of Nineveh, its kings aggressively expanded their territory in every direction. With their fierce armies and numerous slaves at their disposal, they needed nothing and there was no one who could stop them.

But then a crack appeared in the facade. An Israelite prophet from the nation of Judah spoke forth a word by the Spirit of God concerning that great city of Nineveh. His name was Zephaniah and this is what he said:

This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart,  “I am, and there is no one else.”

Zephaniah 2:15

An obscure prophet of a subservient nation lays forth Nineveh’s pride and ambition. The Assyrians believed in their own power and self-sufficiency. They predicted endless victory and glory for themselves, but this self-aggrandizing dream was a fantasy. Their greatness was presumed.

At the height of their powers, their god Ashur failed them. A coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and Scyths gathered unexpectedly and marched on the crown city of Nineveh. Two centuries of Assyrian invulnerability crumbled into a string of crushing defeats. By the time reinforcements arrived from Egypt, it was too late. Mighty Assyria had fallen, leaving its once great empire to be carved up by Medes and Babylonians. In the ensuing geopolitical chaos, Zephaniah’s home of Judah was captured and its inhabitants sent into exile. The prophet’s warnings to rebellious Judah were fulfilled.

Back in the north, the city of Nineveh and all other important Assyrian centers were razed to the ground. The glory of the empire was left desolate and abandoned. In a dramatic reversal, the city that once had everything now had nothing, its legacy of fear and oppression suddenly reduced to a distant memory.

Zephaniah’s words had eerily come to pass:

And he will stretch out his hand against the north and destroy Assyria, and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert.

Zephaniah 2:13

Today almost nothing remains of the great Assyrian empire. The best place to view a glimpse of its former glory is not in its ancestral home in Iraq but rather in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where some of its last remaining relics have come to rest. The fearsome people who ruled Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia have become a neglected footnote in the annals of ancient history.

For centuries Assyria believed itself to be on the right side of history and the rightful kings of the earth, right until it all came crashing down. For generations they enslaved and massacred whoever they wanted and did as they pleased. They had no need to give answer to anybody. They laughed at the God of their weaker vassal states, Israel and Judah, whom they freely plundered and dominated.

But the word of the Lord came through Zephaniah. His voice rang out even as the gears of Assyria’s war machine churned and cranked. Shockingly Zephaniah’s words are not simply a message of impending doom but they contain a surprising glimmer of grace. (Even Nineveh was sent the prophet Jonah who unwillingly called them to repentance which temporarily halted God’s judgment.)

Zephaniah’s prophecy ultimately does not end with disaster but with the promised restoration of the humble and the future elevation of the righteous. Those in Judah would one day be restored and God’s plan fulfilled. Through this nation, six hundred years later all the nations of the world would also receive salvation through Jesus Christ. Yes, even the remnant of Assyrians.

While the Assyrian Empire fell into ruins, the Assyrian people endured. They survived under the reign of successive empires like the Persians and the Parthians. Bereaved of their former glory, they continued to make a life for themselves. And in the first centuries after Christ, many ethnic Assyrians believed in Jesus Christ and went on to found many churches across the Middle East. The religion of those they had historically oppressed became the dominant faith of the Assyrian people. Over the next few hundred years, Assyrian Christians would send missionaries as far as India, Mongolia, and China. Little did they know, Zephaniah’s prophetic judgment against Assyria would one day be followed by the redemption and restoration of Assyria through the crucified Messiah. This Savior, who suffered the same violence and murder practiced so wholeheartedly by the Assyrian Empire, rose from the grave to defeat sin and death once and for all.

A thousand years after their bloodthirsty rule, Assyria’s legacy of violence was replaced by a message of peace distributed freely across the continent of Asia. Humbled, sanctified, and transformed, the Assyrians laid down their swords and picked up the gospel.

Once the Assyrians had recognized no one but themselves; now they recognized the one true God. Once they had pierced innocents with weapons of iron; now they worshipped an innocent man whose hands and feet were pierced. Once they had oppressed the poor and subjugated many captives; now they preached good news and set them free. Once they had followed Ashur into battle; now they followed Jesus in the way of love, hope, and peace.


Church Coffee

church coffee.jpgIf you’ll humor me for a moment, I’d like to talk about church coffee. As sacrilegious as it might seem, I think we can agree that churches don’t serve very good coffee. As Christians, handcrafted beverages just aren’t our specialty. In fact, outside of a vending machine or a hotel lobby, church is near the bottom of the list of places I would choose to consume coffee. And if you’ll excuse my coffee snobbery for a moment, what explains this strange accompaniment of worship by unexpected mouthfuls of coffee grounds?

A while back I was visiting a church with a friend. As we walked up to the entrance, everyone was standing outside chatting before the service drinking coffee. I noticed a row of coffee urns on display, so naturally I filled up a paper cup and took a sip. To my surprise, the coffee was actually pretty good. Clutching this heavenly drink I headed into the service thinking to myself: this church has it going on.

Inside I bid the greeter a customary good morning and reached for my bulletin. Instead of handing me the tri-fold paper, the greeter merely looked at my cup and said, “You can’t bring that in here without a lid.”

My coffee was evidently a spill hazard for the church carpet (a stunning prophecy that came true right after the service began). Quickly I apologized and went back outside to find a lid.

Returning to the coffee table, I discovered there were no lids to be found. I searched a second table full of coffee urns without any luck. Finally I uncovered a box on the ground beneath one of the tables. It was full of plastic lids. I popped one on my cup and went into the service.

A bit miffed, I assured myself that clearly this was simply a minor oversight. Some kindly volunteer forgot to put out the lids and the greeter was merely enforcing the rules. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not the worst thing to be asked to go search for a plastic lid. Even so, I can’t give them any points for their treatment of first time visitors.

Church isn’t Starbucks. But it does make me think about who and what church is actually for. At certain times I’ve found myself attempting to justify the existence of Christian community on secular grounds. I say things like “We provide such-and-such benefits to our community” or “Our student ministry helps the university with retention rates.” It sounds hollow even to me.

Bible commentator Thomas Long writes:

Sometimes churches with strong budgets, professional music programs, well-equipped buildings, and the admiration of their civic communities can miss a deep truth: there is no real social justification for the church. It proclaims a word that is often not welcome, with a love that is easily scorned, to a world that is quick to be cynical, in the name of a Christ who was rejected and despised. Congregations with frail resources, meager programs, struggling ministries, sagging buildings, and not enough people to fill up the choir loft may more quickly understand that, finally, all the church has going for it is Jesus.

And so I am reminded that the body of Christ is not an entertainment venue, a community center, or a social club. It does not serve any social agenda known to man. On the contrary, God’s church exists to “share in the heavenly calling,” a purpose not originating in any known location on earth. Our goals are spiritual, never material. We are founded by Jesus, sustained by Jesus, and wholly dependent on the Holy Spirit, with no discernible function in our greater society. Our good works and noble efforts, though plainly commanded by the Lord, don’t appear to be making much difference compared to the unending string of catastrophes that passes for the morning news. Apart from God, church is a waste of time, money, and human effort.

In my occasional travels I’ve had the privilege of visiting churches with few people, no worship leader, not enough money and little-to-no influence in their community. Humble though they be, each time I sensed the Spirit of God moving among the people there. Too often we treat small churches and ministries like they have committed some grave sin for not growing like a Silicon Valley startup. Other times we murmur that perhaps it’s time to pull the plug, as if it is somehow better if they didn’t exist.

Believe me, such ministries often do feel inadequate, as if they were misrepresenting God with their small numbers and modest worship settings. They know that “faithful” is Christian code for “perpetually struggling.” In other words, they already know their coffee stinks.

The church exists to worship God, build up His people, and advance the gospel. Yes, some congregations have more outward success at this than others. But even successful churches and ministries have an expiration date. Bound by time and space, one day in the distant future their doors will close and services will cease. History is littered with many examples and few exceptions. Old churches, if they’re lucky, find a second life as a museum or maybe an indoor skatepark.

Like the world around us, churches are marching onward toward a slow and inexplicable death. And yet a church cannot fail if it still has Jesus. Is there anything better than a church full of Jesus? For it is in church, under the banner of the resurrected Lord and standing in the presence of the living God, where our hearts are ripened and prepared for eternity with Him. At its best, this is how church transforms us.

If loving Jesus is all that remains, it will be enough. We’re not here for the coffee. Because if it was about the external benefits, most of us would have left Christianity long ago. No, Jesus makes himself real to us. He fills us with savage indefatigable hope. That’s why we meet together in different settings and different places week after week. Church is where we look to heaven, sometimes with a bad cup of coffee in hand, and devote ourselves to the Risen One. For it is there we are reminded that surely He is coming and surely He comes soon.

What Is A Poet?

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris’s bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant’s ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing again soon” – in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming.

– Søren Kierkegaard

To me, this passage illustrates the strange contradiction inside the soul of the artist, an unruly principle which lies at the heart of any creative endeavor. In order to create something of meaning or beauty, one must first identify with and experience a common trait, namely that which is painful, inexplicable, and staggering — human suffering.

Anguish, though never welcome or encouraged, is somehow necessary for the poet, the artist, the musician, and their kin. Out of unwanted pain forms incomparable beauty. What begins as a primal scream, trapped inside our feeble breast, may be mysteriously changed bit by bit into an ordered handiwork. That tremendous cry, once splitting our ears and rending our hearts, through the poet’s craft, unveils itself as something altogether pleasing and acceptable. The frog becomes a prince; the fog splinters before the noonday sun.

The poet has borne an agonizing truth for the world to see, dressed it proper in the guise of respectability. The audience claps politely without spilling their cocktails; critics dash home to dole out their praise; all while peddlers discern an opportune moment to hawk pennies with that hard-won fragment of your withered soul. The ruined artist in the heap of calamity.

And once your bleached bones dry in the wilderness, they throng at your grave demanding you to perform the trick all over again. What is left after you’ve spent your soul? What poem could you compose when your face turns to ash?

An unhappy poet indeed.

S.K. considers this treatment akin to an instrument of torture, a brazen bull in which people were gradually and gleefully roasted to death. An exaggeration perhaps, but one need not look to far to find examples of those who drowned to death in their own misery, cheered on by their so called fans.