Assyria received a reprieve from God’s judgment about one hundred years before Nahum’s ministry because the people of Nineveh repented when Jonah preached the Lord’s wrath to them (Jonah 3). Regrettably, this change of heart was short-lived. The empire soon took up its conquering ways once more, prowling about as a lion—Assyria’s favorite image for itself—and conquering cities such as Samaria and Thebes.
Though God was patient with Nineveh in Jonah’s day, the time for judgment had come. After letting Nineveh go its own way for decades after He had shown the city and empire the grace of relenting from His wrath, the Lord sent Nahum to proclaim the city’s destruction. We read in Nahum 2:11–13 of how the prophet applied Assyria’s own lion imagery to the empire in an ironic sense. Nahum looks for the “lions’ den, the feeding place of the young lions” (v. 11). The sense of the passage is clear: people would look for Assyria’s den—its home or “base of operations,” namely, Nineveh—but they would not find it. Nineveh would be razed, its citizens devoured by the sword (v. 13).
The Assyrian Empire and its capital, Nineveh, had more than earned this destruction. Nineveh was a “bloody city” with “no end to the prey” (3:1). Assyria was cruel even according to the ancient Near East’s barbaric standards. When the empire conquered a people, it would dismember many of them, impale some on spears, and commit other acts that shed much blood. God saw this and purposed not to allow it to go on forever.
Nineveh and the empire it represented were also known for their idolatry. “Whorings of the prostitute” (v. 4) is a descriptor commonly applied to Israel for abandoning God to serve other deities (Ex. 34:11–16; Lev. 20:1–9; Jer. 3:2). Assyria was guilty of impenitent idolatry and deserved the shame that was coming its way. It would be exposed before the nations for its weakness in refusing to bow to Yahweh, much as prostitutes were shamed through exposure back then (Nah. 3:5–7).
Finally, Nineveh was guilty of pride. As the capital of the empire, Nineveh thought it was safe, for it lay far behind the land’s borders and was renowned for its defensive power. Still, no level of human impregnability could save it. Thebes thought it was strong, but it likewise fell (vv. 8–19). Such is the fate of all who do not bow the knee to Yahweh, the covenant Lord of Israel and the one true God of all (Ps. 2).