Palace of a Great King

Palace of a Great King


Assyria, located in Mesopotamia near the Euphrates River, was one of the great empires of the ancient world. Its history parallels much of the Old Testament. Known for their ruthlessness in battle and horrific treatment of captives, the Assyrians were hated and feared. Their vast armies were equipped with the latest weaponry (e.g., barbed arrows and catapults) and siege machines. No wonder Jonah fled when God commanded him to preach to Nineveh, Assyria's capital (Jonah 1:1-3). God's use of this implacable foe to punish the Israelites for their idol worship, child sacrifice, and sexual perversion underscores his anger against the sins of his people (2 Kings 17:16-18).


The Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser began plundering Israel in approximately 740 B.C. (2 Kings 15:29). He destroyed many cities, brutally killing the inhabitants, and left Israel with only the capital of Samaria intact. A few years later, Hoshea, the last king of Israel, unwisely refused to pay tribute to the Assyrians. King Shalmaneser marched on Samaria, slaughtered the inhabitants, and destroyed what was left of the northern kingdom. In 722 BC, these 10 tribes ceased to exist as a people. God's mercy had run out and his judgment was final. The Israelites who remained were forcibly mixed with other religious and ethnic groups and became the hated Samaritans of the New Testament. Those who were deported disappeared from history, though many people believe God was already planning for a future Pentecost (see Acts 2:8-11) and a missionary army to spread the gospel.


After Israel's destruction, the nation of Judah continued a tenuous existence. When would the Assyrian hordes return? How could they hope to escape? Judah's king Hezekiah, recognizing that God was the only possible deliverance, frantically instituted religious reforms. Then, around 700 BC, the new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, turned his attention to the Israelites. Destroying many cities on his march, he invaded Judah, where Hezekiah had made extensive preparations. Sennacherib's own claim that he destroyed 46 walled cities in Judah and deported over 200,000 captives gives evidence of the massive destruction he wrought. Written on clay tablets and cylinders, these ancient records provide a graphic backdrop to the stories of the Bible.


Assyria's kings were committed to more than military conquest. Part of the religious duty of these monarchs was the construction of massive public buildings. Sennacherib's contribution was a new palace he called the Palace without a Rival. His own records indicate that the labor force that built it was composed of deportees of many conquered nations, probably including Israel.

Archaeologists discovered this magnificent palace in the late nineteenth century. It contains more than 70 halls and chambers, all lined with stone panels (called reliefs) depicting Sennacherib's accomplishments. Enormous statues of winged bulls guard the doors of the hallway to the main chamber. The hallway walls are lined with panels commemorating the destruction of the cities of Judah, including the siege of Lachish.

The panels have a chilling effect on those who have read the Bible's account of Sennacherib's war against Judah. People are shown being flayed alive, while others are having their tongues sliced off. Piles of heads surround the king. On the panel that portrays the taking of the city gate, prisoners are being impaled on stakes outside the city walls in full view of their fellow Israelites. Long lines of prisoners are being led away. Assyrian slingers and siege machines highlight the invincible force Sennacherib brought against Judah.


Clearly, God's people faced great suffering because of their sins. Their very existence hung in the balance. Sennacherib's account of the battle of Jerusalem reveals how desperate the situation was. He bragged that he had made Hezekiah a prisoner, "like a bird in a cage." But this proud, cruel king failed to give the whole story. Sennacherib's blasphemous attitude and his attack on the faithful people of Judah were beyond what God would bear. According to the Bible, the angel of the Lord came to the Assyrian camp and killed 185,000 soldiers in one night, forcing the army to retreat Soon after, the Assyrian empire went into decline.


Although the Israelites deserved to be punished, God delivered them because of Hezekiah's faith and trust in him (Isa. 37:14-21,36). Hezekiah did what he could to prepare Jerusalem against attack, but his ultimate trust was in God, not himself. Today we must have Hezekiah's faith to combat the evils of secular society. God wants us to use the means at our disposal to fight against our enemies. But he also wants us to realize that our survival is in his hands. If we place our trust in our own strength, we are lost. Only God can win the battle.