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.”
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.
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.