Long, long ago—nearly 800 years before Jesus Christ was born into mortality, 230 years before Daniel was cast into a den of lions (554 bc), about 150 years before Aesop was born
(620 bc), and approximately 30 years before Romulus laid the foundation of the city of Rome (753 bc), there lived a reluctant prophet and thrived a magnificent city . In about 785 bc, the choices of those living in that city would surprise many, including that same prophet.
In the middle of a vast, green world flourished the great and terrible civilization known as the Assyrian Empire. Through the middle of this most terrible of empires ran two legendary rivers: the Euphrates and the Tigris. These two rivers stretched from the mountains above the land of Mesopotamia to where they joined beyond the great city of Ur, hundreds of miles away. From there the waters continued onward to divide into many small outlets, sink into salt marshes, and finally drain into the Gulf of Persia.
The Euphrates and the Tigris were the main highways for trade among the cities of Assyria and the lands beyond. Sooner or later, from the caravans to the west bringing goods from the Great Sea, or rafts traveling up the Tigris River with wares from the populous cities to the south, all that man had to trade arrived at the center of commerce and power. This city, built larger by stages through a succession of kings, would soon become the capital of the Assyrian Empire—the beautiful, vast, and wicked city of Nineveh. . . .
Nineveh stretched along the banks of the Tigris River for about seven and a half miles. From the river, the city stretched east toward the hills. Yet the province of Nineveh was even
larger. The Old Testament states, “Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey” (Jonah 3:3). The city grew to include the communities of Nimroud, Kouyunjik, Khorsabad, and Karamless. Each of these four royal estates, built in succession by kings or rulers of Assyria, contained palaces, statues, gardens, and tree-filled parks surrounded by walls as if they were individual cities.
During the reign of Sennacherib, the walls about the city were enlarged with increased fortifications. These walls were forty to one hundred feet high and broad enough for three chariots to drive side by side along the top. High towers rose from the walls of Nineveh, which featured no less than fifteen main gates into the city.
The palaces of Nineveh were lined with calcite alabaster slabs brought from the quarries of Egypt and carved into pictures of conquests, brutalities, captured slaves, and pagan gods. Massive carved figures also featured winged females wearing garlands or carrying a fir cone or other religious emblem. Ivory and gold leaf ornamented chairs, tablets, walls, and pillars. Carved to emerge from the alabaster walls were winged sphinxes, lions, bulls, kings, soldiers, slaves, lotus flowers, and scrolls. . .
Everything in Nineveh moved to the pace of a growing empire. There were slaves to tend cattle and serve in the palaces. There were sculptors and artists constantly at work within the palaces or carving in cuneiform on large stone tablets for the city’s library. . .
There were gardens to tend, fruit to pick, children to rear, produce to take to market, baskets to fill, and dinners to prepare. There were soldiers and guards in constant drill, and horses
to exercise, groom, and feed. There were camels to unload of the goods they brought, and boats to empty. And the motion behind it all—even in the still of the night when the men and
women of Nineveh rested, when nothing could be heard but the occasional bellow of a camel or the cry of a child—was the constant flow of the Tigris.
Beyond the beauty of Nineveh, though, was an enduring darkness, because Nineveh was a city enriched by the spoils of war that had come home with its returning soldiers. . .
And darker still, beyond the wicked, bloodthirsty quest for power and the indolent life of plundered riches and slaves, was the daily worshipping of pagan gods with sexual sins and human sacrifice. For along with the fabrics, ornaments, and household goods that came to Nineveh, there came also philosophers, false gods, and abominations of foreign lands. In Assyria, dark ideas accumulated; in Nineveh they flourished. The time had come for God to send a prophet to this city.