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Sennacherib loses face

September 2004 | by Clive Anderson

In 1851 the young Englishman Austin Henry Layard (pronounced Laird) was excavating at the ancient site of Nineveh, opposite Mosul in modern Iraq. He opened up room 36 of Sennacherib’s ‘Palace without Rival’, in the mound of Kuyunjik.

The walls of the small room were covered with magnificent carved slabs — now in the British Museum in London —depicting the brutal siege of Lachish, in Judah. Layard’s discovery caused great excitement in the Victorian world, as this was the first archaeological confirmation of an event from the Bible (see 2 Kings 18:13-14).

The slabs show how this great Assyrian monarch campaigned vigorously in the west of his Empire in 701 BC. They were a triumphal record of King Sennacherib’s glorious achievements, as well as a vivid testimony to his frightening power.

Supreme ruler

They reminded his subjects that he was their supreme ruler, but also left foreign visitors in no doubt that he was to be feared as a powerful conqueror. The slabs, along with other Assyrian documents, showed Sennacherib’s version of events and tell how he laid waste 46 strong cities across Judah.

His account is close to the biblical record except for one striking omission — his records fail to record the debacle he suffered at the capital city of Judah (2 Kings 19)! Instead of mentioning what happened to his army outside the walls of Jerusalem he depicts the conquest of a less important city, Lachish.

However, some time before (or during) the destruction of Nineveh in August 612 BC, an unfriendly hand, maybe a Babylonian soldier, mutilated just one part of this record — the face of Sennacherib as he sat on his throne supervising the spoils of war from Lachish. This ‘lost face’ can still be seen today, and offers us a timely lesson from history.

Losing face as a

king

Sennacherib’s name meant ‘Sin [Moon-god] has increased his brothers’ and implied a suitability for kingship. He succeeded to the throne, not as the firstborn son of his father Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1), but as his chosen successor when Sargon was killed on campaign in 704 BC.

He proved to be a capable builder and leader who did much to improve the society in which he lived. But, like many another dictator, he delighted in promoting himself.

Among the many inscriptions he left is the following: ‘Sennacherib the glorious, terror of nations, King of the Earth’s Four Corners, Lord of the Earth, King of kings’. In another place he wrote: ‘Great King, mighty King, King of the universe, King of the country of Assur’.

One of the Lachish slabs bears the inscription: ‘Sennacherib King of the world, King of Assyria, he sat on a throne and the booty of Lachish passed before him’. No one could accuse him of false humility!

While besieging Lachish, this formidable monarch ‘sent his chief officer, his field commander and a large army to Jerusalem’ (2 Kings 18:17). He thought he could subdue any nation whatever deity they honoured. His representative asked: ‘How can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?’

Like many others, he thought that Israel’s God was powerless to intervene — and in this he made a terrible mistake. For Sennacherib was exposed, not as the all-powerful conqueror but as a man who had to submit to the true King of the Universe.

This is a lesson that many learn when it is too late for them to repent of their sins.

Losing

face as a commander

The Assyrian king had total control over the targets, tactics and deployment of his army. He would take advice but the final decision was always his. Many people today act like this, controlling their own little empires — at home, at work, in the church or in the world at large.

The reality, of course, is different, for none are masters of their own destiny. Sennacherib ‘lost face’ in the very campaign that was meant to enhance his reputation. He was diminished when he was forced to withdraw from Judah without securing total dominance.

This must have rankled, for previous Assyrian kings Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V had not only defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel but also deported its population.

A great distance

We need to learn this lesson from history, lest we too set ourselves up as masters of all we survey. Those who arrogantly treat God as irrelevant or inconsequential will one day learn the bitter truth — for God will never yield his glory to anyone else.

These historical events are reflected in the contrasts handed down to us. The Bible makes only brief mention of Lachish, whereas Sennacherib devotes a whole room to it. On the other hand, the Bible has much to say about Jerusalem, whereas Sennacherib gives it little space.

Sin always magnifies the wrong thing and tries to exalt what is insignificant. How great a distance there is between Sennacherib and the Lord Jesus Christ, who in Joshua 5:15 is called ‘the commander of the Lord’s army’.

For the Lord always leads his people to victory, bringing stability and everlasting peace. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:14: ‘thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession’.

Losing face as a father

It is tragic when children have little respect for their fathers. Sennacherib’s sons turned on him and killed him. He did not recognise the danger that lay within his own household — he would have been wise to keep closer to his sons!

As princes of the royal household they would have been trained in the art of war — and part of their training meant learning not to fear the enemy or any foreign god. It was two of his sons, Adrammelech and Sharezer, who were embolden to slay him with the sword in the temple of his god Nisroch, in 681 BC (2 Kings 19:37).

Who this god was we do not know. But Sennacherib’s grandson, King Ashurbanipal, refers to this event when (after subduing a rebellion in Babylon many years later) he wrote:

‘As for those men … who uttered vulgarity against Ashur, my god, and plotted evil against me, the prince who fears him, I slit their mouths and brought them low … by the colossi between which they had cut down Sennacherib, the father of the father who begot me, I cut down those people there as an offering to his shade’.

Time to repent

What finally drove his sons to kill him is not known, although there may be a clue on the Lachish reliefs. Standing before Sennacherib is the crown prince Esarhaddon, who succeeded him as king even though he was not the eldest son.

Perhaps the two sons who killed their father felt resentment at this snub? Whatever the grievance, Sennacherib had clearly ‘lost face’ with them.

But the bigger picture is found in the Bible, which links his death to the events at Jerusalem in 701 BC, twenty years earlier. God gave him ample time to repent and turn from his ways, but when he failed to do so judgement fell upon him.

God is always patient towards sinners, but delayed judgement does not mean that people have escaped. God graciously waits for repentance but, as with Sennacherib, time eventually runs out. That is why the Bible urges everyone to repent and believe in Christ while time remains.

Losing face in history

One Assyriologist writes, ‘Sennacherib stands out among Assyrian kings as a man of exceptional enterprise and open-mindedness’. Yet for all his achievements he is largely forgotten or unknown today. He pales into insignificance next to Nebuchadnezzar, even though, from a human standpoint, he achieved as much as the famous king of Babylon.

The reason is not hard to understand, for the total devastation of the Assyrian Empire is one of the best lessons in modesty the ancient world provides.

Those who set themselves up in opposition to the true and living God will always come unstuck and, like Sennacherib, ‘lose face’.

In recent times we have heard a great deal about Saddam Hussein, who ruled the land familiar to Sennacherib. Yet although his trial will no doubt thrust him back into the limelight, it will also show that his empire was a transitory thing.

Many in the Arab world were shocked to see him undergoing a medical check-up after his capture — as one report said, ‘It shows he has lost face’.

May we learn the lessons of history and realise that in Christ alone we have a leader, commander and King who will never fail his people but instead is our true friend. He has never ‘lost face’.

Rather, as Paul reminds us, ‘God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The author is co-author with Brian Edwards of

Through the British Museum — with the Biblepublished by Day One