Minor Prophets XII: Nahum
Nahum is the prophesy of the destruction of the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nahum finishes the story of Jonah, insisting on God’s justice and mercy.
Assyria is first mentioned as one of Adam’s landmarks along the Tigris River (called Hiddekel in Gen. 2:14). Nineveh was founded shortly after the flood by Ham’s grandson Nimrod (Gen. 10:9). After founding Babylon, he moved on to Nineveh about 250 miles north (Gen. 10:10, cf. Mic. 5:6).
Isaiah specifically references both God’s intention to use Assyria to judge the northern kingdom and to judge Assyria for their wickedness. They will be like a flood that overflows the banks and reaches up to the neck of Judah (Is. 8:7-8), but woe to Assyria, the “rod of God’s anger” (Is. 10:5). Beginning with Tiglath-Pileser, Assyria carried a portion of the northern kingdom into captivity (2 Kgs. 15), and then under Shalmaneser and Sargon, Assyria conquered Samaria and carried them away and resettled the land in 722 B.C. (2 Kgs. 17). Eight years later, Shalmaneser came back to Judah, and Hezekiah paid a great tribute attempting to keep Assyria out of Jerusalem (2 Kgs. 18). There was apparently a long siege with an Assyrian General named Rabshakeh mocking Hezekiah and Israel’s God (2 Kgs. 18). During the siege, Sennacherib became the next king of Assyria, but God heard Hezekiah’s prayers and struck down 185,000 Assyrians in one night and Sennacherib returned to Nineveh where he was struck down in the house of Nisroch his god by his own sons (2 Kgs. 19, Is. 37). Even though God used Assyria to carry out judgment and chastise His wayward people, Isaiah says they didn’t know that they were a rod in God’s hand (Is. 10:6-11). Therefore, Yahweh will punish Assyria for their arrogance and pride (Is. 10:12-19, cf. Is. 14:24-27).
Under Sennacherib, the city of Nineveh doubled in size, making it the world’s largest city at the time, c. 700 B.C. The inner city was protected by a wall eight miles in circumference. It was a hundred feet high and wide enough for three lanes of chariots to race. It had twelve hundred towers and fourteen gates. And there was a much longer outer wall. Sennacherib’s armory was housed on a forty-six acre lot that took 6 years to build. We also know that Nineveh grew exceedingly rich, receiving tribute and taxes and plunder not only from Israel and Judah but from many of the surrounding nations. There’s a famous Black Obelisk in the British Museum that lists many of the conquests of the Assyrian kings and lists their plunder: all the silver and gold and horses and camels and goblets and copper and wool and linen and ivory furniture brought back to Nineveh. We also know that business was booming in Nineveh. The nations were pouring in, merchants were buying and selling, and there was great wealth throughout the land. And yet despite all of this greatness, all of this magnificence, less than a hundred years later, in 612 B.C. the city would be utterly destroyed.
The Text: Nahum opens following the identification of the prophet (1:1) with a psalm describing God’s jealousy, patience, and power (1:2-8). The psalm is an acrostic poem reminiscent of Ps. 119 and Lamentations, but here the acrostic deteriorates and doesn’t finish – which doesn’t seem accidental. The prophet summarizes the psalm with questions to those who turn against the Lord, given what God is like (1:9-11). Surely God will pass through whoever plots against the Lord and will destroy them and their gods (1:12-14), but he comforts Judah and calls her to feast with the good news that their enemies will be cut off (1:15). Then Nahum seems to describe the vision he has seen of armies gathering together and ultimately overrunning Nineveh like a flood, spoiling and wasting (2:1-12). The announcement is that Yahweh has determined to restore the excellence of Jacob (2:2), and Yahweh has turned against Nineveh to destroy and silence it (2:13). Nahum cries out against Nineveh, calling it a “bloody city,” full of lies and robbery and military violence because of their sorceries and harlotries (3:1-4). Again, Yahweh announces that He is against Nineveh, and He says He will treat her like a shameful woman (3:5-7). Yahweh taunts Nineveh asking whether she can withstand His arm any better than ancient Thebes (“No Amon”) in Egypt (3:8-10). Yahweh assures Nineveh that she will be torn down and scattered like locusts (3:11-17). Nahum closes addressing the king of Assyria in particular, and announces the eerie silence of death on all his nobles and princes and people (3:18). Nahum seems to suggest that everyone will cheer at the downfall of Nineveh and Assyria because the prophet asks, who hasn’t suffered your wickedness (3:19)?
Why does God give us a book like Nahum? 1) Nahum reminds us that we serve a God who is concerned with the whole world not just with one ethnic group or geographical region. 2) Nahum reminds us that God’s justice applies to the whole world, and therefore God cares for all the nations affected by Assyrian bloodlust. 3) Piecing the story together with Jonah, Nahum is a warning against temporary repentance (cf. 2 Pet. 2:18-22). 4) Nahum teaches us that even when God seems slow to act, His justice does eventually come with a vengeance. 5) Nahum is an example of God’s commitment to justice that frees His people to serve quietly, to love their enemies, to feast in joy. How can we return blessing for cursing? How can we feast in the face of horrific evil? God, the Judge of the whole earth will do right.
God Against Us & For Us
It’s easy to think that there is some great difference between big sins and little sins, but Jesus made it clear that hatred is a form of murder, lust is a form of adultery, and even stray cursing deserves Hell (Mt. 5:21ff). This is because all sin is actually destructive. And this is why God is utterly against it. God is slow to anger, quick to forgive, but He is unalterably against all evil. This means that we cannot draw a very strict line between Nineveh and ourselves. In fact, Paul says that the point of the law was to reveal the injustice and unrighteousness of all men – that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (Rom. 3:9-19). As sinners, God is against us. But the purpose of declaring everyone guilty is to demonstrate God’s righteousness and justice in sending Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26). God condemned sin in the body of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 8:3). He bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24). Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (Gal. 3:10-13). It pleased God to crush Him and put Him to grief, to make Him the offering for our guilt (Is. 53:10). In this way, God is dead set against us in our sin and condemns us, declaring us guilty, but justice is satisfied in the cross. He has sent His own Son to stand in our place because He is also for us and has promised to always be for us.
Nahum’s name is from the Hebrew word NCHM which means “to comfort” or “relent.” Some scholars have thought this a little too ironic given the key use of this word in Jonah’s prophesy where God “relents” from judgment against Nineveh since this is the crucial point of contention between God and Jonah (Jon. 4:2). But Noah’s name is built on the same root. Lamech named his son “Noah” saying, ‘he will comfort us concerning our work and the toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed.’ (Gen. 5:29) The Greek word frequently used to translate the Hebrew is the word “parakaleo” from which we get the word Paraclete, the name Jesus gives the Holy Spirit, the Helper, our Advocate, our Comforter (Jn. 14:16, 14:26, 15:26, 16:7). And though I suppose it could be entirely coincidental, Jonah’s name means “dove.” In other words, in the story of Nineveh we see both God’s desire to save all men, and His determination to destroy all evil. And it is through the Greater Jonah, the Greater Nahum, our Jesus, that God does both, bringing us through the flood of His righteous judgment, into the new world of His grace and peace.