A kid in high school was shocked when his uncle passed away so suddenly in his prime. He was telling a friend ,Jonny, how hard it was that it happened so suddenly. Then Jonny tells him, “oh, my uncle knew exactly what day and what time he was going to die!” Amazed he asked, “wow, that’s so cool how did that happen?” Jonny with a mischievous glint in his eye gave a smirk and replies, “the judge told him!”
Lame jokes aside, this is somewhat what we are confronted with in Nahum—or at least what Nineveh is confronted with! The Judge of all the earth basically tells Nineveh, “your time is up.” However, many feel numb about these types of oracles of judgment despite their terrifying descriptions. Most seem more impressed by Jesus’ love, death and forgiveness (which are amazing!) but a lack of awe towards God’s righteous anger. As a result, many—even preachers—avoid this book and those like it. G.K. Chesterton once said, “…children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” So is it a loss of innocence that leads to our discomfort with Divine justice? What does this book have to teach us? I believe that ALL scripture is profitable for us—so let’s dig in a bit and see what is there.
1 The oracle of Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. 2 A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, And clouds are the dust beneath His feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; He dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; The blossoms of Lebanon wither. 5 Mountains quake because of Him And the hills dissolve; Indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence, The world and all the inhabitants in it. 6 Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire And the rocks are broken up by Him. 7 The Lord is good, A stronghold in the day of trouble, And He knows those who take refuge in Him. 8 But with an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of its site, And will pursue His enemies into darkness. (Nahum 1:1-8 NASB)
Why don’t we connect with or see the comfort in this book?
Perhaps one of the ironies of this book is that Nahum actually means “consoler or consolation” or “comfort”. Interestingly, the root has a meaning of ‘being relieved by taking vengeance’ (Is. 1:24; 57:6). However, it is for the very reason that this book is ‘uncomfortable’ that people avoid it. We are uncomfortable with such final and seemingly harsh ‘vengeance.’ Why do we have this disconnect?
Maybe the reason lies in our contemporary context. For the majority of us and our congregants in western culture, the idea of living in exile or being conquered by a ruthless foreign army is the furthest thing removed from our reality. So before we can appreciate what it may have to say to us, we should endeavour to figure out what it said to its original audience. However, beyond that, we should understand not just what it said—but also how it was felt—how it would have been received. What was the weight of the emotion of these words both spoken and heard?
Historic context | Israel’s disposition
Prior to Nahum, the people had endured the reign of 2 evil kings—Manasseh and his son Amon (2 Kings 21). By the time Josiah had come to the throne, Assyria had brutally dominated Judah for more than a century. Assyria was the symbol of terror and tyranny in the Near East for more than 300 years. The extent of their dominance by the mid-7th century BCE was unparalleled. They were the ruthless superpower of the world at that time and Nineveh was their capital.
For them it was not enough to simply conquer people, they also subjected the inhabitants to all sorts of suffering and humiliation. One king, Ashurbanipal, boasted about tearing out tongues and smashing people alive with their own idols. He cut up their flesh and fed it to dogs, swine, vultures and fish. Their soldiers would flay people alive and they made it a point to remind people often of their cruelty. The British Museum has stone carvings which show them heaping up heads and impaling men on wooden stakes outside the city as visual aids to the besieged. They often mutilated their captives, dashed infants and disembowelled pregnant women. How would our reading of Nahum change if that woman were your wife? If that child was yours? God’s vengeance would suddenly not seem so ‘unpalatable’, would it?
We can see why previously, Jonah was less than excited to preach repentance to them. Imagine being told to go share the Gospel with the people who had oppressed, killed, raped, pillaged and dominated your people and family for an extended period of time! Furthermore, people were (and still are) concerned about the idea that God would allow a brutal nation such as the Assyrians to carry out judgment on his behalf! Nevertheless, the Bible says in several places that the Assyrians were his instruments of judgment. No matter how great the nation, they are still pawns in the hands of a Sovereign God.
Perhaps there is some irony that the reluctant prophet—Jonah—preaches to Nineveh, desiring to see its destruction and instead sees it repent. Then about a century later—Nahum who seems to be pretty willing—gets to preach the message Jonah could only dream about. There’s a lesson in there to preachers: we don’t get to dictate the message or its efficaciousness—we’re not God’s editors. We’re called to be His faithful ministers of His Word in its entirety. Jonah got rebuked for his unwillingness to preach repentance, since God’s grace is totally undeserved and in reality, he was no better than the Assyrians themselves. He had not done anything to justify himself feeling more deserving of Grace. But that’s a message for another time.
Global & personal application
Joseph Parker once said, “If you preach to the hurts of people, you will never lack an audience.”
Part of the difficulty of preaching this book is finding reference points to this context that we can relate to. Perhaps the closest thing we have on the world stage right now is ISIS. We’ve seen reports of their brutality on news and online articles. I’m sure the people under their oppression might read Nahum quite differently to us. I won’t attempt to put myself in their position though, since that’s a world I’m wholly unfamiliar with—and I don’t want to feign some sort of understanding for something I have no clue about personally. Also, it’s too far removed from our context to really hit home. However, I wonder how the persecuted church would read such a book? Could it be that our own comfort blinds us to see the comfort in a God that avenges?
How can we connect and empathize with an experience that is totally foreign to our context? It seems pithy to compare “oppression” under a mean ol’ boss with that from under Assyrian dominance. This is not to minimize our struggles, however, our culture has sheltered us from the grim face of death. We hide from death’s cold stare, bodies are kept from the public at large and instead our media floods our minds with images of youth and photoshopped beauty. Perhaps this has deluded us to not properly contemplate our own mortality.
I remember years ago seeing the corpse of a man gunned down in cold blood not too far from in front of my doorstep in Trinidad. The image is still stamped on my brain. That sort of thing can very quickly change your perspective. I’m sure for those of us who have had to confront the grim face of death, we know this all too well. Especially if it is a death coming from unnatural or violent causes. Perhaps a personal family story may help bring us into what the readers of this text would have felt.
A Story from my Family
My father grew up in poverty. He was the eldest of seven siblings and son of a simple farmer. He knew what it was to have rice and sugar as their only meal and see his father cry—not being able to put food on the table. My dad laboured hard for years to build a business for himself and pull himself (and our family) out of poverty by God’s grace and blessing. When I was born, we were still living in a wood shack and within the next 6 years, our family would upgrade to a concrete house big enough to house us and our grandparents and uncle. In 1990, the Jamat al-Muslimeen, a radical Islamic group, staged a coup in Trinidad toviolently overthrow the government. Fortunately, all of my family was safe, but my dad’s business was ransacked and robbed. Looters seized the opportunity for anarchy. The city was pillaged and parts were burnt.
I remember as a little boy going with him after the situation settled to the ruins of his store and walking through the overturned isles of everything he had worked for which now lay destroyed on the floor. I wonder how much did that cry for justice well up inside him? At moments when this world’s evil has a personal touch, the desire for justice is not just some mere abstract virtue we wish for—it is a deep born, throat scratching, snot-nosed desperate cry which seems to erupt from depths we never knew existed. I can imagine, perhaps to some slight degree, this may have been what the hearts of the Israelites felt at that moment.
How long O Lord will your justice tarry!? How long will the wicked prosper and the innocent only see bloodshed? How long will a terrorist state slay your faithful? How long will corrupt politicians rob and exploit the public? How long will those who have cheated, lied, stolen, broken marriage vows, abused, violated, swindled… how long, how long!?
I don’t know your history, but I reckon that this cry for justice is one we are all familiar with to some extent. This world is not fair. Business deals go sour. Friends backstab. Children die. Robbers mug. Rapists violate. Terrorists threaten. And all the while, the just are slaughtered and the wicked seem to go unpunished. Well do we resonate with the Psalmist’s cry for justice,
“O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless; and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.'” (Psalm 94:3-7 ESV)
We understand the weight of emotion in those words from the martyrs in Revelation 6:10, who cry out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” But the Lord’s reply to them is interesting—to wait a little longer until the appointed number of martyrs have died. Wait. What?
Robert Jordan said, “…men often mistake killing and revenge for justice. They seldom have the stomach for justice.” Maybe the book of Nahum can still speak to us today…
Structure & analysis
Verses 2–8 have the form of an acrostic—each line starts with the subsequent letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In acrostic poems, the form required in the Hebrew can take precedence over the flow of thought. Thus, in translation the form is lost, and as a result the flow of thought may seem erratic or even illogical. However, I believe there is a rhyme to this text. It is not totally without structure or theological meaning. In fact, quite the opposite.
It is the “affirmation that God is the Lord of history. History is the arena of his activity. God is not merely an abstract concept to the prophet, nor is he a disinterested deity. He brings nations into being and down to defeat. History is not under the control of godless nations or fortuitous events; it is under the control of the Creator.”
Three diamonds in the rough
Amidst the darkness of these 8 verses, three glimmers catch our gaze—the shadow creating enough contrast for them to stand out. I see this opening ‘poem’ like a painting. Any good artist knows the value of utilizing light and dark to create contrast to highlight points of interest. They draw the eye to focus and meditate on them. Let’s investigate these glimmers a bit further…
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies.
God identifies himself as jealous (קנא, kona) many times in the OT (Ex. 20:5, 34:14, Deut. 32:21). However, God’s jealousy is different to ours. Our jealousy is not right, as we are not properly the true owners or creators of anything. We are not the creators of all things, nor do we hold inherent rights to anyone else. God is jealous to preserve that which is rightly His.
Note that it is the same God—Whose way is in the whirlwind, Who rebukes the sea, to Whom mountains tremble and hills melt—Who is jealous (v.4-6). It speaks to God’s desire to be the exclusive object of His people’s affection and worship so that He will be the defender of His own glory. Therefore, to those who recognize their helplessness and weakness, their status as utter beggars not owning anything of their own, a sovereign and powerful God who is jealous for them is very comforting. Verses 4-6 confirm just how powerful and sovereign our God is.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, And the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, And clouds are the dust beneath His feet.
This verse opens off with a curious phrase. “The opening words say literally that the Lord is ‘long of nostril.’ In Hebrew the nostrils are associated with anger, and to be ‘long of nostril’ means to be slow to anger.” Repeatedly we see in the OT that the Lord, though He takes vengeance on His enemies, He withholds his judgment for a long time (cf. Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). In other places where the Lord is spoken of as slow to anger, the companion usually is that He is “of great mercy” (For example, Neh 9:17; Psa 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). However, here, what we see following instead is that He is “great in power”.
Spurgeon commented on this,
“The Lord is slow to anger; and he is slow to anger, because he is great in power. “How say you so?”—says one. I answer, he that is great in power has power over himself; and he that can keep his own temper down, and subdue himself, is greater than he who rules a city, or can conquer nations.”
You see, true greatness is not just unrestrained show of force, but power under control.
We sometimes can characterize people by one particular virtue, such as, “Peter is bold.” “John is kind.” “Tristan is unwavering in zeal for truth.” However, it becomes perhaps a bit more tricky when we talk about God. Even the commonly quoted (half) verse “God is love” (1 John 4:8), while true, is only a part of the picture. Perhaps we can more readily boil our fellow men down to a single defining virtue because of their lack in others. It’s like the shadows provide sufficient contrast for that one particular virtue to shine brighter than others and so provide a synopsis for them. With God though, as He is perfect in character in ALL His attributes—there is no shadow. There is no attribute in which He is less than another. He is perfectly loving, just, merciful, wrathful, righteous, etc. He is perfect—light in all His ways. Unlike any of us. Perhaps that’s where the disconnect lies.
Spurgeon comments on this, saying,
“we are not able very easily to perceive where the shadows and the lights blended, where the meekness of Christ blended into his courage, and where his loveliness blended into his boldness in denouncing sin.”
Our tendency to boil God down to ONLY one attribute we like—such as love, mercy, grace, forgiveness—robs ourselves of seeing ALL His grandeur. I contest further that it robs us of the true depth of comfort in knowing that THAT type of God—one who is not a sissified and censored Disney version—is violently for us! Perhaps C.S. Lewis captured this aptly in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
We must not try to domesticate Aslan. In times of trouble, we need His roar. His strength is a comfort who know they rest in Him.
A Tale Told by an Idiot
Shakespeare said that the human story is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I wonder if this is along the lines of what the Israelites may have thought at that moment? Or what might have crossed my dad’s mind? The sense of hopelessness is one which touches us in times of dispair and is exactly where I think Nahum could speak comfort. We all struggle with this frustration of life—of which the Preacher in Ecclesiastes lamented, “Vanity of vanities!”
An appeal to humanity’s own capacity to save itself will not do. The ultimate solution to injustice cannot be found within our own reach. It is not to be found in wealth or fame or personal achievement. We’ve seen time and time again how man’s attempts—law systems, health care, programs, new leaders, etc—all fail miserably at saving ourselves. Death strikes us all, and where there is no hope in death, its cold breath inevitably invades our life sending that uncomfortable shiver down our spines. “Pascal knew whereof he spoke when he said that he had learned to define life backwards and live it forwards.”
Perhaps you find yourself here reading this – feeling hopeless in your yearning for some final justice to be done. You see the wrongs of our world, not as a disinterested observer, but as an experienced victim of its brokenness. There’s a longing that’s unsatisfied by any earthly measure.
This desire for that final eschatological hope is in all of us. C.S. Lewis said in The Weight of Glory which we speak of as a desire for a far-off country which we have never visited. It slips in unconsciously into our conversations, a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience, but one for which we cannot hide. The longing for final justice and redemption. We cannot hide it because our own experience is constantly suggesting it and our outcry against the lack of it betrays ourselves, like “lovers at the mention of a name.” Nahum promises that day will come for the Israelites—and the Bible promises that similarly for us that Day shall come.
However, what do we do in the meantime?
Allow me to close with 2 points.
1. Let God be Judge
“If you spend your time hoping someone will suffer the consequences for what they did to your heart, then you’re allowing them to hurt you a second time in your mind.” ― Shannon L. Alder
God is a far better Judge than any of us can be. Furthermore, He is the only rightful Judge. The book of Jude is a very helpful cross-reference to me in our reading of Nahum. The whole point of Jude is to point to the times when God did judge, showing how complete His judgment was, and for us to realize that He alone is the One who has the right to execute final judgment. There is a guilty pleasure in knowing that the wicked are going to get what’s coming to them. And more so, perhaps there lies in us the proclivity to want to help God out in being the dispenser of final judgment.
At first reading, we may think that’s what Jude is exhorting us to do—go get those false teachers and teach them a lesson! However, in the whole book of Jude, the only part for us as the reader to respond is to remember, build yourselves up in the faith, pray, keep yourself in the love of God, wait for the mercy of God and extend mercy on those who doubt (Jude 1:17-23). Quite antithetical to our own desires to be the ultimate vindicator. This is why it ends with a doxology “to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord…” Let us not undermine God’s rightful place as Judge.
“For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:30-31 NASB)
“The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (2 Peter 2:9 KJV – because who doesn’t love quoting KJV for these types of verses!?)
For those who are the victims of injustice, may we find comfort that there will be a Day when the wrongs of this life will be finally righted and we will be forever contented in the love of our Lord. May we continue in humble faithfulness as we eagerly await the coming of our Lord and Saviour. May we trust that He who we know has been faithful in our own lives, will also be faithful in judgment as well. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25b)
2. The God who is there
Lastly, while we wait for the Judge to execute final justice in His right time, though it may sometimes seem afar off—God does not leave us as orphans alone in the interim. God is there. In fact, He’s right there in the text! Where you might ask? Well—aside from the fact that it’s an oracle FROM THE LORD, let’s look at the third glimmer—verse 7:
“The Lord is good, A stronghold in the day of trouble, And He knows those who take refuge in Him.”
God is a stronghold IN the day of trouble. When we need Him most, in that day of trouble and trial—He KNOWS the ones who take refuge in Him. This must have been a blessed comfort to the Israelites to hear. He is Emmanuel—God with us.
As NT believers, the incarnation of Christ speaks volumes which cannot be fully expounded here. As we read Nahum, we must not only understand it in its original context to its original readers, but also as Christians we must read and understand it Christologically. James Steward sums this up very well:
“The very triumphs of His foes, it means, He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to subserve His end, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to His feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out His doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had defeated God with His back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.”
God has not remained aloof, but has entered into our suffering.
Though Nahum’s message to our ears may seem harsh, this is what God invites us into—to take a hold of Him in the midst of our suffering, hanging on to His promises for a future hope and resting in His presence presently.
A sailor in a shipwreck was thrown upon a rock where he clung in great danger until the tide went down. Later a friend asked him, “Jim, didn’t you shake with fear when you were hanging on that rock?”
“Yes, but the rock didn’t,” was the significant reply.
Christ is the Rock of Ages.
May we cling to Him.
The words from a hymn written by Martin Luther (c.1521-1529) during some of the darkest years of his life aptly conclude:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our Helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal. Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle. And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours, thru him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever!
-  Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible , 1519
-  Carson New Bible Commentary, 834
-  Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 141
-  Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 219
-  Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1520
-  Carson, New Bible Commentary, 834
-  Carson, New Bible Commentary, 834
-  Clark, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Nahum, 5
-  Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1520–1521
-  Clark, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Nahum, 6; Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, , 419–420
-  Clark, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Nahum, 7
-  Johnson, “Nahum,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 1497
-  Clark, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Nahum, 7–8
-  Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, 245
-  Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, 241–242
-  C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter 8
-  Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5
-  Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God?, 53
-  Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 4
-  Stewart, The Strong Name, , 55
-  Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, 501
- Barker, Kenneth L. Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, vol. 20, The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999.
- Calvin, John and John Owen, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 3. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.
- Carson, D. A. et al., eds., New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.
- Clark, David J. and Howard A. Hatton, A Translator’s Handbook on the Book of Nahum, UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1989.
- Elwell, Walter A. and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
- Johnson, Elliott E. “Nahum,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.
- King George VI, in Leonard Griffith, Reactions to God, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1979.
- Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.
- Shakespear, William. Macbeth
- Spurgeon, C. H. The New Park Street Pulpit Sermons, vol. 3. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1857.
- Stewart, James. The Strong Name, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972.
- Tan, Paul Lee. Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times. Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996.
- Zacharias, Ravi. Can Man Live Without God?