(I carried away, I devastated, I destroyed, I burnt with fire) 

Assyria was a military nation, highly  disciplined; her characteristics being  destructive invasion, deportation and  taxation. The words of the prophet Nahum: “…  Devastation, desolation, and destruction!” echo the war cry of the Assyrians.

Virtually every historian draws attention to the war-like nature of the Assyrian people. James  McCabe, author of History of the World, says  the Assyrians were a “fierce, treacherous race, delighting in the dangers of the chase and in war.  The Assyrian troops were notably among the  most formidable of ancient warriors… They never kept faith when it was to their interest to break  treaties, and were regarded with suspicion by their neighbours in consequence of this characteristic…  In organization and equipment of their troops, and  in their system of attack and defence and their  method of reducing fortified places, the Assyrians manifested a superiority to the nations by which they were surrounded.” (Vol1, pp155, 160).

James Hastings wrote: “The Assyrians of  historic times were more robust, warlike, ‘fierce’,  than the mild, industrial Babylonians. This  may have been due to the influence of climate  and incessant warfare; but it may indicate a  different race… The whole organization of the  State was essentially military.” (Dictionary of  the Bible, article “Assyria and Babylonia”).  Leonard Cotrell in Anvil of Civilization, wrote: “In  all the annals of human conquest, it is difficult to find any people more dedicated to bloodshed and  slaughter than the Assyrians. Their ferocity and cruelty have few parallels save in modern times.”  The spirit of Assyria was almost inconceivably  cruel. Her methods of warfare were brutal: torture, mass-terror, mutilation, and forced population shifts. The Assyrians of old were much like the Nazis of last century. The Assyrians terrorized the ancient world.

As one of their most famous kings, Sennacherib was the epitome of what it was to be an Assyrian.

Sennacherib – the Soldier

Sennacherib, son of Sargon, came to the throne of Assyria around 704 BC This was in the eleventh year of Hezekiah king of Judah (see Isa 36:1).

As implied by the meaning of his name “the  moon god Sin has compensated for (or multiplied)  his brothers”—Sennacherib was not Sargon’s  firstborn son, but for some reason, not recorded in  history, he was chosen as legitimate heir, brought up  in the “House of Succession”, and entrusted early with high administrative and military functions, especially on the northern frontier. He was thus well  prepared for his royal duties, when in 704 BC he  ascended the throne of the Assyrian Empire.

His first efforts were directed to crushing a  revolt in Babylonia, led by Merodach-baladan. Sennacherib invaded with a large army that  Merodach–Baladan could not resist. The victorious  Sennacherib entered Babylon and plundered  everything which had belonged to his enemy. He  did this without upsetting the citizenry. However  he ventured further south into the land of the Kaldi from whence the rebels had drawn supplies.  The invasion was carried out with much cruelty.  Sennacherib himself records: “I left not one alive;  their corpses I bound on stakes and placed them around the city.”

In his third year, after having campaigned against the Kassites, Sennacherib turned his arms toward the west. The lands of the west had been invaded before by Sargon, Shalmaneser, and  Tiglath-Pileser. Victories were achieved by them, but rebellion was common. It appears then that  Sennacherib’s aim was to break up a powerful  combination of these western princes that included  Elulaeus, king of Tyre and Sidon, Zedekiah, king of Askelon, and also Hezekiah king of Judah. Having  dealt with the Phoenicians, the Edomites, and the  Moabites, Sennacherib then attacked the kings of the Philistines. He begins with Askelon, and  soon overpowers it. Zedekiah and all his family  are dragged away to Assyria. The whole coastland  had now submitted and so Sennacherib turned his  attention to Ekron. As Sennacherib was about to attack Ekron, Egyptian princes, and some allies, appeared on the battlefield against him. A victory was achieved easily. The princes and the high priest  who had led this rebellion were put to death and  their corpses were placed on stakes on the town  walls. This episode involving the Egyptians is  mentioned in Isaiah 37:25 (Sennacherib here relates  how he “dried up all the rivers of the besieged  places”. This should be rendered “dried up all the Nile-arms of Matsor,” that is, of Egypt, so called  from the “Matsor” or great fortification across the  Isthmus of Suez, which protected it from invasions  from the east). Nevertheless, he did not press the  issue with Egypt any further. Rather, he finished  the job of routing Ekron.

Finally he turned his attention against Judah.  It was at this time that “Sennacherib came up against all the fenced cities of Judah, and took  them” (2 Kings 18:13). (There can be no doubt  that the record which Sennacherib has left of his campaign against “Hiskiah” in his third year is the war with Hezekiah so briefly touched in the Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah; 2 Kings  18:13–16; 2 Chron 32:1–8. His own account of  this invasion, as given in the Assyrian annals, compares favourably with the Biblical account in Isaiah’s prophecy.) He accordingly led a very  powerful army of at least 200 000 men into Judea,  and devastated the land on every side, taking and  destroying many cities. Hezekiah sent a message to Sennacherib, admitting that he had done the  wrong thing and that he was prepared to do anything  Sennacherib requested (2 Kings 18:14). As a result, Sennacherib forced him to hand over silver and gold from the temple at Jerusalem. Sennacherib, not  satisfied with this, then sent envoys from Lachish  to try to persuade Hezekiah to surrender, but in vain. He next sent an insulting and threatening  letter (2 Kings 19:10–14), which Hezekiah carried  into the temple and spread before the Lord. Isaiah  brought an encouraging message to the pious king  (2 Kings 19:20–34) and subsequently in “that night”  the angel of the Lord went forth and destroyed the  camp of the Assyrians. In the morning, “behold,  they were all dead corpses”. The Assyrian army  was annihilated.

This great disaster is not, as was to be expected,  taken notice of in the Assyrian annals. Sennacherib boasts in his records that he locked Hezekiah up in  Jerusalem “like a caged bird”. However this is all he could claim. He did not defeat Hezekiah.

His army’s annihilation did, however, appear to slow him down. He did not fight another campaign  until a decade after his meeting with Hezekiah and  the God of Israel. Though Sennacherib survived this  disaster some twenty years, he never again renewed  his attempt against Jerusalem. He was murdered by  two of his own sons, Adrammalek and Sharezer, who escaped to Armenia, and he was succeeded by another son, Esarhaddon (in 681 bc), after a reign of twenty-four years.

Sennacherib – the Builder

It was Sennacherib who made Nineveh a truly  magnificent city (c 700 BC). The hitherto ancient  and ‘royal residence’, was enlarged, fortified, and  embellished, and turned into a capital-city worthy  of the vast empire it commanded. Like many before  and after, Sennacherib wanted to make a name for  himself.

In all probability the best description of the city  is that given by Sennacherib Articles11.3himself on the cylinder  recording his expedition to Tarsus in Cilicia. From  ancient times, he says, the circuit of the city had  measured 9 300 cubits. He claims to have enlarged  the city by 12 515 (cubits). The great defensive wall  which he built was called by the Sumerian name  of Bad-imgallabi-lu-susu, which he translates as  “the wall whose glory overthrows the enemy”.  He made the brickwork 40 (cubits) thick, which would probably not greatly exceed the estimate of  G Smith, who reckoned it to have measured about  50 feet. The height of the wall he raised to 180  tipki, which, admitting the estimate of Diodorus,  should amount to about 100 feet. In this enclosing  wall were 15 gates, which he enumerates in full.  Three of these were situated in the short northwest  wall—the gate of Hadad; the gate of Uru or Hadad  of Tarbisu (Sherif Khan), and the gate of the moongod  Nannar, Sennacherib’s own deity.

Within Nineveh he laid out fresh streets and  squares and built within it the famous “palace  without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly  recovered and has overall dimensions of about 210  by 200 m (630 by 600 ft). It comprised at least 80  rooms, of which many were lined with sculpture.  A large part of tablets was found there; some of  the principal doorways were flanked by humanheaded  bulls. The palace of Sennacherib lay in the  southeast corner of the platform, and consisted of a  courtyard surrounded on all four sides by numerous  long halls, and rooms, of which the innermost  were capable of being rendered private. It was in  this palace, that the reliefs were found depicting  the siege of Lachish, with the representation of  Sennacherib seated on his “standing” throne, while  the captives and the spoil of the city passed before  him. The grand entrance was flanked by winged  bulls facing toward the spectator as he entered.  They were in couples, back to back, on each side  of the doorway, and between each pair the ancient  Babylonian hero-giant, carrying in one hand the  “boomerang” and holding tightly with his left arm  a struggling lion (Layard, Nineveh and Babylon,  137) was represented

Another claim to fame for Sennacherib, according  to the historian Berosus, is that he built the city of  Tarsus in Cilicia in about 696 bc Interestingly  Sennacherib did not claim to have built it—a little  strange in light of his many other boasts.

Sennacherib—the Man

It has been said that very little is known about the  man. That assessment needs to be contested.  Sennacherib was an Assyrian to the core. He  epitomized what it was to be an Assyrian. He was  brutal and ruthless. He was not a sophisticated  man and spent his entire life, with brief interludes,  warring here and there. However, like most selfish  people, he was also a cowardly man. Instead of  going out to war himself, he sent others. One  historian says of him: “Like the Persian Xerxes,  he was weak and vainglorious, cowardly under  reverse, and cruel and boastful in success.”

His accession to the throne came about after  his father’s (that is, Sargon’s) murder. There are  historians who consider that he may have been  involved in his father’s grisly death. If this were  so, then it would show him to be utterly ruthless  and without natural tenderness.

The fact that he nowhere mentions his celebrated  father’s name, tells us that his relationship with him  was either poor or that his ego could not bear a  direct comparison with one who clearly was of  superior character. The manner of his death also  reveals something about the sort of person he was. Yes, he was an idolater—but his slaying at the hands  of two of his sons—shows that he engendered no  warmth, love, or respect amongst his children.

The records of Sennacherib, translated from one  of many cylinders by George Smith and now in the  British Museum, certainly give an impression of  person who has a high opinion of himself.

“Sennacherib the great king, the powerful  king, king of Assyria, king of the four regions,  the appointed ruler, worshipper of the great  gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, maker of  peace, going the right way, preserver of good. The  powerful prince, the warlike hero, leader among  kings, a giant devouring the enemy, a breaker of  bonds.” A quick look at his record shows that he  has taken poetic licence with the truth. But it is the  ego which shines through so strongly.

One only has to consider the rock inscriptions  concerning his campaign against Babylon to see  how self-centred he was, and what he saw as important achievements in life:

“As a hurricane, I attacked it, and like a storm,  I overthrew it… I carried away, I devastated, I  destroyed, I burnt with fire.” These words tell us  a lot about the man. Not only does it show him  to be cruel and heartless, but the repetition of the  personal pronoun reveals him to be self-centred  and self-obsessed. The words having been made an  inscription are a boast. What a strange boast! ‘I killed  people. I destroyed families, lives, communities and,  what’s more, I’m proud of it. I don’t care about and  am completely oblivious to the feelings of others.’  He was cold to human suffering. Sennacherib (as  well as his countrymen) must have been peculiarly  ‘unimaginative’, if he was unable to realize  within himself the agony of his victims;  otherwise he could never have inflicted  upon entire nations such hideous pangs of bodily torture as those recorded. In fact,  it seems he enjoyed it. The very fact that  some of the reliefs at his palace in Nineveh  depict the disgustingly sadistic torture of  the various peoples that he conquered  is strong evidence of his mind set. Like  other tyrants through history, he did not  have any idea what havoc he wreaked  upon others. What mattered to him was  himself and the glory of his name. The  elevation of self made it possible for him  to be blind to the suffering of other people. What is  more, this sort of self-centredness is made all the  more possible when a person lives a privileged life  of wealth and unmerited importance. Sennacherib’s  position in the “House of Succession” obviously  contributed to his own warped and selfish view of  the world. His privileged position surely made him  accustomed to wealth, comfort, and getting his own  way. (Contrast this with the humble beginnings of  our Lord’s life.) Everything, therefore, he does is for  his own glory, his own elevation, and his own power.  Reading his own account of the campaign in Judah,  from the “Sennacherib Prism”, one is confronted  with the same theme. There is a constant referral to  “I… I… I”. The account also shows the extent to  which he was willing to go to get his own way.

“In my third campaign I marched against Hatti.  Luli, king of Sidon, whom the terror-inspiring  glamor of my lordship had overwhelmed, fled  far overseas and perished…. As to Hezekiah, the  Jew, he did not submit to my yoke. I laid siege to his strong cities, walled forts, and countless small  villages, and conquered them by means of well stamped earth-ramps and battering-rams brought  near the walls with an attack by foot soldiers, using  mines, breeches as well as trenches. I drove out  200,150 people, young and old, male and female,  horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small  cattle beyond counting, and considered them slaves.  Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal  residence, like a bird in a cage. I surrounded him  with earthwork in order to molest those who were  his city’s gate. Thus I reduced his country, but I  still increased the tribute and the presents to me  as overlord which I imposed upon him beyond the  former tribute, to be delivered annually. Hezekiah  himself did send me, later, to Nineveh, my lordly  city, together with 30 talents of gold, 800 talents  of silver, precious stones, antimony, large cuts of  red stone, couches inlaid with ivory, nimedu-chairs  inlaid with ivory, elephant-hides, ebony-wood,  boxwood and all kinds of valuable treasures, his  own daughters and concubines. . .”

Power and wealth impressed him greatly.  More particularly he loved the fact that he himself  possessed both. Phrases from the above record, like  “the terror-inspiring glamor of my lordship” and the  words on an inscription at Tell ed–duweir in Iraq,  which declare “Sennacherib, the king of the world,  the king of Assyria”, give insight into the essential  shallowness of the man.

Sennacherib’s drive for self elevation is no  better illustrated than by his relationship with the  city of Nineveh. It was, as previously mentioned,  Sennacherib who made Nineveh into a great city. Although Nineveh is mentioned about 1800 bc as a  worship place of Ishtar, it was not until Sennacherib  came along that it was enlarged and embellished. Up  until then it was simply another royal residence. Once  again we see his desire for glory and his innate need  to boast. His descriptions—“palace without rival” and  “the wall whose glory overthrows the enemy”—reveal  how he is impressed by symbols of power.

Most men have a desire to be remembered by future generations and it is in architecture and  buildings that many men choose to be remembered.  In Sennacherib the ego was well developed and so that  desire was very strong and his efforts considerable.

A Message of Hope

At the height of his power, Sennacherib would have  been intimidating—terrifying to those who were  vulnerable. Many suffered from his overwhelming  and unjustified cruelty. They lived in fear of him  for a long time—about 24 years. Yet Sennacherib,  while praying, met with the death he deserved; he  was slain with a sword by two of his own sons.  There is in his death no better affirmation of that  famous dictum: “he who lives by the sword, dies  by the sword.” In other words, there is such a thing  as justice. Great tyrants do not last forever. God is  faithful and He is just; people get what they deserve.  Time like an ever flowing stream sweeps them  away—just like every other mortal man.

Tyranny is not new. Every age has tyrants,  big and small. Likewise every life has periods  that are almost unbearable. The message from  Sennacherib’s life is that just as all good things must come to an end, so must all bad things.

Sennacherib’s tyranny, his blasphemy, and his  subsequent death are not a new story. Hitler also in  a way challenged God. He opposed the entire world, attempting to bend it to his will, determined to rule.  He was also a ruthless man. We know that in the  end he sat in a bunker, trembling from what some  doctors have determined was a disease brought on by amphetamines. He took the coward’s way out and committed suicide.

Stalin, who was as great, if not a greater murderer than Hitler, destroyed his own people by the millions. In the end, he is believed to have been killed by his own doctor or someone on the inside close to him. Death swallowed him.

Ghengis Khan was a rabid dog who took vicious  bites out of Europe, decimating Articles11.3.0entire populations. His attacks were so ferocious that people trembled with fear at the mere mention of his name, but he died and his kingdom dwindled.

Napoleon  is dead.  Eichmann is dead. Himmler  is dead. Nero is  dead. Mussolini  is dead. Make your own list. Over and over again,  one word will become common to each evil man. “Dead.” They are dead. They all must come to  that door and enter. There is no escape. As it was  written: “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in  the day of death: and there is no discharge in that  war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are  given to it” (Eccles 8:8).

The living often despair under the rule of the  wicked: “When the righteous are in authority, the  people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov 29:2). But we know that our future is determined already, that this place is  not our ‘home’, and that the pleasures, comforts and wealth of this world and all it offers pale in  comparison to our inheritance. We know that the  glory of the kingdom age far outweighs the misery  and troubles of this age. We know, too, the futility of ordinary human existence. Mortal men are full  of grand plans and great determination, but they are  oblivious to the obvious. Men forget the obvious—  that they are mortal—that all they see around them  is temporary. They forget that they will be forgotten and their so-called achievements will turn to dust.  In the case of Sennacherib, these happened more quickly than Sennacherib could have imagined.  The Assyrian Empire in a few generations rose to rule a mighty empire. Within eighty years of  Sennacherib’s death it ceased to exist. It was not  just subjugated; it was annihilated. The very name  “Assyrian” became just a memory and a tradition.  Sennacherib, Sargon, and Tiglath-pileser were  forgotten in name and their deeds became vaguely  mythical. Even great Nineveh was condemned  to a rapid demise. Two centuries after the end of the Assyrian Empire all that remained were ruins covered in mounds.