The Minor Prophets: Nahum

Minor-Prophets-series_NahumIn the book of Nahum we return once again to the great city of Nineveh. The last time we visited Nineveh was in the middle of the 8th century with the reluctant prophet Jonah. God had sent Jonah to Nineveh with a message of judgment and utter devastation. Nineveh had forty days to repent before God executed His wrath upon that vile city. Shockingly, Nineveh repented, and God relented concerning His threats of crushing the city. Fast forward a century, and Nineveh once more is in a deplorable condition. God raised up another prophet to prophecy of destruction upon the Ninevites, Nahum the Elkoshite. Unlike Jonah, Nahum is not sent to Nineveh to herald God’s wrath upon the city; he remains in the confines of Judah, declaring a message of comfort to God’s people in a most unusual structure: a prophecy of condemnation without relief and without salvation. Judgment has been a constant theme as we’ve seen throughout the Minor Prophets, but the storms of judgment are always followed by the peace of deliverance and restoration. Not so in Nahum. The book begins and ends with a brutal divine battering of the Assyrian Empire, with its capital city, Nineveh, as the primary target of divine retribution.

The city of Nineveh seemed to be an impregnable fortress. Through the city ran a river that provided water to its residents, making Nineveh nearly impossible to defeat through a siege. Running the full circumference of the city, walls one hundred feet high and fifty feet thick created a barrier that could not be breached by any invading force. The emperor Sennacherib was so enamored with his defenses he described this obstruction as “the wall whose glory overthrows the enemy.” If Nahum prophesied around the year 660, as many scholars agree he did and which seems most probable, his prophecy would have sounded insane, the words of a fool or a madman. Just a few years prior, in 664, Assyria had overthrown the city of Thebes in Egypt, a city whose defenses rivaled those of Nineveh. Assyria was at its apex of power, and any thought the empire would be devastated was easily disdained.

Hunting a lion from the North Palace, Nineveh via  the British Museum

Hunting a lion from the North Palace, Nineveh via the British Museum

About fifty years after Nahum’s prophecy, the city of Nineveh was destroyed. In 612 BC, the capital of the Assyrian Empire fell to the Chaldeans. How the Chaldeans, with the help of the Medes, overthrew the city is still a mystery. Some speculate that the river which ran through Nineveh had eroded the foundations of the wall surrounding the city, and a section of the wall collapsed, opening a breach for the invading army to use to their advantage. Whatever the case, as God had declared through Nahum, so Nineveh was destroyed. The Assyrian Empire gasped for air for about 7 more years until it expired once and for all in 605. Assyria is now just a memory, a short-lived kingdom consigned to the annals of history. Three hundred years after the fall of Nineveh, Greek forces marched over the ruins of the once mighty capital without recognizing a city ever stood on the site.

How does a prophecy of the dissolution of an ancient empire without a conclusion of salvation speak to the people of God in our contemporary situation? The beginning of Nahum’s prophecy provides the key to understanding it in its entirety. The prophet opens his message of devastation with an avalanche of theology proper, describing seven attributes of God, seven actions of God, and one action in particular God will by no means do. These fifteen truths come rapidly in the opening eight verses of the book.

First, Nahum focuses on the attributes of God. The Lord is (1) jealous, (2) avenging (twice!), (3) wrathful, (4) slow to anger, (5) great in power, (6) good, and (7) a stronghold in the day of trouble.

Next, Nahum shows that the Lord (1) takes vengeance on His adversaries, (2) reserves wrath for His enemies, (3) rebukes the sea and makes it dry, (4) dries up all the rivers, (5) knows those who take refuge in Him, (6) makes a complete end of Nineveh’s site, and (7) pursues His enemies into darkness.

And what is the one thing the Lord will never do? The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The emphasis undoubtedly falls on the judging attributes of God. He is jealous for His people, He avenges His holy name and His people, and His wrath burns upon His enemies.

Some have concluded that these attributes make God unworthy of worship because they subvert His love. To the contrary, these attributes of God give his love meaning and validate His zeal for His people. They provide comfort for the people of God.

The Prophet Nahum by James Tissot  via Art and the Bible

The Prophet Nahum by James Tissot via Art and the Bible

His jealousy means that He will tolerate no rivals in the hearts and lives of His people, and anyone or anything that threatens His covenant promises being fulfilled will be eliminated. In the context of Nahum, that threat was the Assyrian Empire as they warred against the people of God. God’s jealousy for His people erupted in eviscerating that ancient city.

God’s vengeance upholds His holiness. He will ensure that every deed the dishonors His name will be justly recompensed, so God’s people need not fear that evil will triumph.

God’s wrath, though slow and patient, breaks out in fury upon those who are His enemies, who would mutiny against His sovereignty. The citizens of His kingdom know God will deal a decisive blow to those who oppose all that is good and holy.

In summary, without God’s jealousy, God’s vengeance, and God’s wrath, God’s love would be cruel because it would perpetuate without relief the wickedness of the ungodly.

Nahum, whose name means comfort, comforts the people of God by revealing a side of God’s love we often fail to see: the love of God that breaks forth in holy jealousy, vengeance, and wrath on His enemies. We take comfort in knowing that God’s righteous indignation toward His people was poured out upon His Son on the cross, and we take comfort in knowing that God is working to bring all the wrongs to right by judging those who oppose Him without repentance. Indeed, the Lord is good and, unlike Nineveh, He is a stronghold for His people that can never be breached.

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