As a city symbolic of man’s power in rebellion against God, Nineveh ranks second only to Babylon. Yet it also stands out as an example of cultural repentance- the population of a large city recognizing the holiness of God and humbling themselves before him. Three of Israel’s prophets- Jonah, Nahum, and Zephaniah-had dealings with the city. Nineveh
flourished from about 800 to 612 BC on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day city of Mosul, in northern Iraq.
A Wicked City
Nineveh was the greatest of the capitals of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel. It is first mentioned in the Old Testament as one of the cities established by Nimrod (Gen 10:9-12). It is better known as the city to which God called the reluctant prophet Jonah in the eight century BC. the book of Jonah calls it “the important city” (1:2; see also 4:11) and “a very large city” (3:3), adding “it took three days to walk through it” (3:3) to describe its size. This phrase may indicate the city’s actual size, or it may be an idiom referring to the first day for the travel to, the second for visiting, and the third day for the return. The phrase “120,000 people . . . [who] couldn’t tell their right hand from their left” (4:11) is most likely a reference to the entire population, offering a picture of God’s amazing compassion for those who are unaware of spiritual truth.
Nineveh was a wicked city, the epitome of everything Jewish people hated in the Gentile world. Its name became a synonym for godless tyranny. When God said Nineveh was evil (Jon 1:2) or wicked, that was an understatement. The inhabitants had a reputation for cruelty that is hard to fathom in our day. Their specialty was brutality of a gross and disgusting kind. When their armies captured a city or a country, unspeakable atrocities would occur, such as skinning people alive, decapitation, mutilation, ripping out tongues, making a pyramid of human heads, piercing the chin with a rope, and forcing prisoners to live in kennels like dogs. Ancient records from Assyria boast of this kind of cruelty as a badge of courage and power. To call them the terrorists of their day would be accurate. We could also fairly say that everyone feared and hated the Assyrians.
Everyone, including Jonah, hated Nineveh. He didn’t want the slightest thing to do with those people even though God sent him there. He was a prophet of Israel, not a preacher to the degenerate Assyrians. Nineveh was not in Jonah’s comfort zone. Nineveh represents the places God calls us where we do not want to go, anywhere that looks like trouble or danger. Nineveh represents the places we fear.
A City on Its Knees
As perverse and immoral as Nineveh was, it is remembered for the people’s desire for God’s compassion (Jon 4:11). They responded with repentance and conversion “from the most important to the least important” (3:5). This reputation for repentance is what endures in the New Testament. Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with you a t the time of judgement and will condemn you, because they turned to God and change the way they thought and acted when Jonah spoke his message. But look, someone greater than Jonah is here!” (Matt 12:4). As famous as the Ninevites were in their depravity, they repented when Jonah preached to them of a coming judgment, whereas Jesus’ own generation ignored his warnings.
In a dual lesson that repentance is neither permanent nor transferable to the next generation, the story of Nineveh has a sad conclusion. A hundred years after Jonah, the city had returned to its state of horrendous moral perversion. Both Nahum and Zephaniah declared God’s judgment on the city. This time, no repentance was expressed. The famed Assyrian city was destroyed in 612 BC by the Babylonian army, which wiped out the remainder of the empire in the following years.
(THE A TO Z GUIDE TO BIBLE SIGNS & SYMBOLS, Understanding Their Meaning and Significance Pg 172 & 173)