The herds shall lie down in her midst,
Every beast of the nation.
Both the pelican and the bittern
Shall lodge on the capitals of her pillars;
Their voice shall sing in the windows;
Desolation shall be at the threshold;
For He will lay bare the cedar work.
This is the rejoicing city
That dwelt securely,
That said in her heart,
“I am it, and there is none besides me.”
How has she become a desolation,
A place for beasts to lie down!
Everyone who passes by her
Shall hiss and shake his fist.
– Zephaniah 2:14-15 (NKJV)
With these words, Zephaniah wraps up the pronouncement of judgment upon the nations that stood against His chosen people. The great city of the Assyrians, Nineveh, will be reduced to nothing. Animals, beasts, will take over.
Mouths Filled with Boasting
We touched on Assyria and it’s relation to Judah a couple of weeks ago. These folks were the muscle of the region, until the Babylonian Empire arrived on the scene. Their style was one of total conquest, complete domination. They were not, however, any worse than any of the other ancient empires that rose and fell like the changing of the tide. Despite a famous reputation for ruthlessness, historians note of the Assyrian’s equally-famous preference for deportations,
The deportees, their labour and their abilities were extremely valuable to the Assyrian state, and their relocation was carefully planned and organised. We must not imagine treks of destitute fugitives who were easy prey for famine and disease: the deportees were meant to travel as comfortably and safely as possible in order to reach their destination in good physical shape. Whenever deportations are depicted in Assyrian imperial art, men, women and children are shown travelling in groups, often riding on vehicles or animals and never in bonds. There is no reason to doubt these depictions as Assyrian narrative art does not otherwise shy away from the graphic display of extreme violence. (1)
This does not mean that men like Sargon II or Sennacherib were cuddle-bears. They weren’t. Keeping deportees safe as they traveled into exile, into working for a foreign power, makes good economic sense. Though the evidence indicates that they weren’t outright abused, the people Assyria conquered were still forced into a life they did not choose. They were still under complete control of a king who wielded absolute power.
2 Chronicles 32:1-23 and Isaiah 36-37 record Sennacherib’s dealings with King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. He sends his military commander, the Rabshakeh, to threaten and intimidate the citizens of Jerusalem:
“Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you; nor let Hezekiah make you trust in the LORD, saying, “The LORD will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.”’ Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make peace with me by a present and come out to me; and every one of you eat from his own vine and every one from his own fig tree, and every one of you drink the waters of his own cistern; until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Beware lest Hezekiah persuade you, saying, “The LORD will deliver us.” Has any one of the gods of the nations delivered its land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Indeed, have they delivered Samaria from my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their countries from my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’”
– Isaiah 36:13b-20 (NKJV)
Sennacherib was confident that there wan’t anybody, past, present or future, that would take him on and win.
How wrong he was!
Sennacherib’s sons assassinated him in his own palace (681 B.C.) This triggered the beginning of the end, a decline punctuated only by the last great Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanpial, who loved the arts so much that he commission a sculpture showing he and his wife at a picnic, with some heads and hands dangling in the tree limbs. You know. Pretty ornaments. (2)
Again, the Assyrians were really no worse than other ancient empires, but they were certainly no better. As with all great nations, the borders expanded beyond what could be reasonably governed. Ashurbanipal’s successors simply could not hold things together.
A century and a half before, God had sent the prophet Jonah to Assyria’s capital city of Nineveh to warn them of God’s judgment, and the people had repented, but successive generations went back to the old pagan ways, and Nineveh was destroyed in 612. B.C. Within the next few years, the once great Assyrian Empire simply vanished from the face of the earth, and Zephaniah saw it coming.
Because Nineveh thought it was an impregnable city, her citizens were careless and carefree when Zephaniah made his prediction, but God brought both the people and their city down into the dust of defeat. (3)
This is exactly what happened.
In 612 BCE Nineveh was sacked and burned by a coalition of Babylonians, Persians, Medes, and Scythians, among others. (4)
What We Want
It is important to notice that the people of this nation were given a chance to hear the message of truth. (If you haven’t read the book of Jonah, do. It’s interesting and funny and terribly convicting). God doesn’t judge them because of their ignorance. He judges them because they know better and choose to turn away from Him.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
– Romans 1:18-23 (NKJV)
The Assyrians had the testimony of creation. They had the sense that each of us has in our hearts that there is something more, something greater. They had a visit from a prophet (never mind that he was a cranky prophet). They lived in close proximity to the people of God; they did not collectively always do what they were supposed to do, but there were always some in the population who spoke and lived the truth.
The Assyrians were judged based on what they knew and how they lived.
Odd, isn’t it? This is what we so often claim that we desire. We flippantly say that we want God to judge us by how we live. Because we are, after all, “good people.”
This is the exact opposite of what we want.
What we truly want, what we desperately need, is for God to see us through the lens of Christ. We don’t want to be judged by our own lives. They will forever fall so very far short of the mark. We want to be judged by the life of Christ. We want His work, His earnings, applied to our accounts.
A Picture of the End
Prophecy has layers. There was an immediate fulfillment. There is a future fulfillment.
The fall of Nineveh, and of every empire before or since, points to what is to come.
Pause now and read Revelation 6.
I cannot and will not tell you when the end of things will come. If I tried, that would make me a useless and probably false teacher. The exact box on the calendar that will signal the beginning of the final days isn’t one I’m aware of. Only God knows. The point isn’t to try and figure that out.
The point, instead, is to remember that God is the Judge.
Is God gracious? Yes. Merciful? Yes. Compassionate, kind, good, faithful and loving? Yes. He also sits on the throne. He has the whole case spread out before Him. He has no need for a jury, for He alone decides.
“…the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
– Revelation 6:17 (NKJV)
Who can stand?
Those who choose, right now, to bow.
- What is your view of God? Is He “Buddy Jesus,” someone who’s there to support you in whatever you want to do? Is He harsh and unknowable? Read John 17 and Revelation 19:11-21. Do these chapters change your view of God?
- It is difficult for our minds to comprehend that God will both forgive totally and judge totally. It is hard for us to accept that we come to Him on His terms, not our own. Read Hebrews 4:13-16. How do you respond to this passage?
- Read Zephaniah 2. What do you take away from the message of judgment on the Gentile nations surrounding Judah?
- We are 2/3 of the way through this book. What have you learned so far? What do you want to know more about
(3) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 151-152.
For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.