We don’t often think of God’s wrath as a topic meant for comfort. Yet, Nahum, whose name means comfort, wrote a book about God’s judgment on Nineveh (Assyria) with the aim of bringing comfort to the people of the Southern Kingdom.
Assyria had a serious god-complex, and those are easy for humans to come by. Listen to the boastful arrogance of Senacherib’s top lieutenant in the wake of destroying “all the fortified cities of Judah” (Isaiah 36:1) just prior to the angel of the Lord smiting 185,000 of his soldiers.
Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand? (Isa 36:18-20).
In the days of Nahum, Assyria reached the zenith of its power under the rule of Ashurbanipal (668-627) (1:12a). The kings of Assyria loved to memorialize their beastly deeds. In selections from the annals of Ashurbanipal, we read:
They suspended their corpses from poles, tore their skin off, and affixed it to the city walls….I let dogs, swine, wolves vultures, the birds of the heavens, and the sweet-water fish devour their cut-off limbs….The people who lived in the city and had not come out and had not acknowledged my rule, I slew, I chopped off their heads and cut off their lips….I bored through his jaw with my cutting dagger, pulled a rope through his cheek and the sides of his face, and attached a dog chain to him, and let him guard the cage at the east gate of Nineveh.i
Such boasting came from a kingdom that did not realize that they were an axe in the hand of God (Isa 10:15). When Hezekiah trusted God in the face of Assyrian aggression, 185,000 Assyrians were killed by the angel of the Lord. This is the story of Israel. They were never a great and mighty people, but they had a great and mighty God who fought for them.
In the days of Nahum, Manasseh reigned in Judah. Because of his wickedness, God via Ashurbanipal carried him in exile to Babylon. Having time to think about the error of his ways, Manasseh repented, and God restored him to the throne in Jerusalem. In the last years of his life, he instituted reforms, and Nahum declared the fall of Nineveh.
I think it’s easy to see in the face of such a formidable enemy how Nahum’s vision of judgment was a strange and hopeful comfort for the faithful.
If I told you that tomorrow God will right every wrong (1:2), rid the world of all evil, sin, pain, and suffering, restore what the has been ruined (2:2), and make a complete end to evil doers (1:8), what would your reaction be? Would you rejoice? Or would you protest and desire to keep this present world as is? Is the KOG something to be desired, something to be prayed for or not? Do you feel that you would gain or lose if tomorrow were the last day?
I fear that many of us as Christians are so rooted in this present age that we cannot imagine a better life.
I want us to see how the message of divine justice is a comfort for the people of God.
God’s judgment means that God is true to his nature and character (1:2-7).
After looking at God’s person and ways (2-5), Nahum asks his first rhetorical question in verse 6: Who can stand before his indignation (froth at the mouth)? Who can endure the heat of his anger (nose or nostril—rapid breathing)? This is not just a question for the Assyrian or the Judean but you and me as well.
Nahum outlines in covenantal terms truths about God’s person and ways. He highlights certain attributes of God and their outworking in human history. The caution here is that we can never think of one attribute of God in conflict with another. God in reality has 1 attribute—He is God. Nahum is talking about the godness of God—God being true to who He is.
Notice the language Nahum uses to speak of the person of God. The LORD is jealous and wrathful (2); the LORD is avenging and wrathful (2); The LORD is slow to anger and great power (3); the LORD is good (7). What a powerful description of God!
Nahum also describes the ways of God in executing His wrath: The LORD takes vengeance on His adversaries and keeps His wrath for His enemies (2); the LORD will be no means clear the guilty (3).
You will recognize that Nahum quotes form Exodus 34:6-7 in verse 3. There the LORD said of Himself, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
Nahum carefully leaves out the language of mercy and forgiveness. To Nineveh no mercy would be offered. 100 years before Jonah had preached in Nineveh, and Nineveh responded in repentance. Now, no offer of mercy is extended. God, indeed, had been slow to anger, but patience and longsuffering are no character flaws in God. Neither is wrath. God is simply being God.
The language is exceedingly strong and sobering in this text.
Yet this message is comfort to the people of God. Outstanding in this description of God’s person and ways is that there is no conflict between God’s wrath and His goodness. We cannot miss the connection between God’s covenant love for His people and the execution of His wrath.
It is just wrongheaded to think that a good God would not judge people. God cannot be good and not judge. Any judge who acquits the guilty, you would never call good.
In one and the same event God shelters His people and executes His judgment (7-8). Friend, today, the response to this message of God’s wrath is not to reject it as unreasonable but to see the only God who can save is the God who judges. Our refuge is not in rejecting Him and the truth about Him. That is no safe place. Our refuge is to trust in Him. The truth is every human deserves judgment. God Himself, in the person of His Son, took our sin and God’s just wrath against us on Himself, so that in Him we might have a refuge where there is now no condemnation. Paul said it like this: We shall be saved from wrath through Him! (Rom. 5:9).
God’s judgment should have a sanctifying effect in our lives (1:8-14)
Stunning words are uttered in 12b: Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more. Indeed, Assyria had been the axe in the hand of the Almighty to discipline His people and preserve them by holding evil at bay among the nations of western Asia. The problem with Assyria was they did it arrogantly and did not give YHWH glory. They, however, had served their purpose when reform began in Judah in the latter years of Manasseh.
All God’s people needed do to live successfully in the Land was to live a life of obedient faith. All of Judah’s trouble with Assyria began around 100 years prior to Nahum. Ahaz hired Assyria to protect him from Syria and the NK of Israel, whom the LORD sent to discipline him. The LORD sent word to Ahaz not to enter such an alliance saying, If you will not believe, you will not be established (Isa. 7:9 NKJV).
Because of dependence on Assyria, the idolatry of the Assyrian cult was brought into the temple and littered the Judean countryside.
Manasseh, in Nahum’s time, furthered such debauchery being more wicked than the Amorites (2Kgs 21:11). Yet when Manasseh repented God brought about a dramatic reversal for both Assyria and Judah.
The LORD became the stronghold of His people but made a complete end of their adversaries (7 c.f. 8). Notice the language: He will pursue His enemies into darkness (8). They plotted against the LORD (9, 11). Though Assyria was at its most powerful point in history, in Tombstonesque language, the LORD said to Assyria, I will dig your grave (14).
You can’t make a deal with the devil. You can’t beat him either. Yet, there is no enemy who cannot be overcome through faith standing on the Word of God. The devil, like Assyria, is a bully. He entices and, then, accuses. When he lays siege to our hearts and minds, we retreat to familiar patterns of thinking and behaving that are destructive to our souls. We play the tough guy becoming angry and seeking to settle the score, forgetting settling accounts is way beyond our pay-grade. We then play the victim avoiding any responsibility for our present situation. Depression and despair become our dark friends—miserable comforters they are.
Look again at who God is: The LORD is jealous, avenging, wrathful, slow to anger, great in power, and good! All He calls you to do is trust and rest in Him. There, in Him, you can be free from your anger, you are no longer in a position to be victimized, and you can lay aside depression and despair, knowing that God fights for you. He will pursue your enemies into darkness (8) and dig the grave of the vile (14). Only God knows how to avenge His people and His Name.
This is the sanctifying power of the judgment of God. Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (1Pet.4:19). By entrusting our souls to God who judges righteously, we are able to release the wrongs we have suffered and work for the eternal good of evil doers.
God’s judgment is good news for the people of God (1:15-2:13)
If the strange and odd comfort of God’s judgment hasn’t already gone into to our heads sideways, this point will. Nahum, presumably, quotes Isaiah 52:7, which Paul quotes in Romans 10:15—How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! Yet, Nahum firmly couches these words in the context of judgment on the enemies of the people of God (1:15-2:1).
What ensues is the most detailed description of the siege of an ancient city to be found anywhere (3-9). Nineveh was a massive, well-fortified, ancient city. It was located on the east side of the Tigris river near modern Mosul, Iraq. The Tigris and other tributaries fed a moat surrounding the city that was 150 feet wide and 60 feet deep. The city was enclosed by two massive walls that went on for miles and miles. The inner wall was the higher of the two, about 100 feet tall, and wide enough for three chariots abreast to race around it.ii
With great accuracy Nahum described how the Babylonians and Medes managed to conquer the city in a time of flood. Its greatest strength became its greatest weakness. iii
It is a foundational truth of the Bible that salvation cannot come to the people of God without the judgment of their enemies. There is a reason we read these words in the final scene in Revelation: But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). While the gospel is good news, it also is bad news to those who reject it. Inherent in the message of salvation is the message of judgment. Nahum gives us the startling words not once but twice, Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts (2:13; 3:5).
Nahum is clear that the judgment of the enemies of the people of God is good news (1:15), restoration of all the enemy had taken (2:2), and a call for all who hear the news to clap their hands (3:19).
Rejoicing in God’s judgment is not gloating over another’s misfortune. Rather it is pleasure taken in the vindication of God and His promises. It is joy in the fact that justice will finally and ultimately prevail. God’s judgment is not like our big brother beating up bullies with us saying, “Yea, take that.”
Rejoicing in the judgment of God and consummation of His Kingdom is like being surround by a great army, supplies are systematically cut off, starvation ensues, realizing our situation is hopeless but waking up in the morning to find the enemy gone, coffee in the pot, and eggs, bacon, and biscuits on the stove, and knowing every moment that the only reason you were not on the other side was because the Son of God stood between you and the outpouring of wrath and bore the punishment you should have borne. That is cause for clapping your hands.
God’s judgment means that there is no enemy so formidable that God cannot and will not defeat (3:1-19).
It is true that God fights for His people. He fights for us in many ways. Every means is at His disposal to bring temporal and eternal judgment to bear on those who trouble his people.
Particularly, in chapter 3, Nahum describes God executing poetic justice on Nineveh. This is clearly addressed to unbelievers, but it is here for the comfort of God’s people because whatever you face, whatever you have experienced, whatever has been taken away, God will set every wrong right.
This is a powerful warning and a call to unbelievers to take refuge in Christ. You may think, “But pastor, I am a believer, but I led a wicked life and hurt people deeply. What about me? What happens to me in the reckoning of all things?” Christ bore, drank to the dregs, every bit of the payment for your sin. You are free.
This text is for the obstinate unbeliever. Here is a preview of the justice coming your way. Nahum outlines with three rhetorical questions.
Where are your comforters, and Who will grieve for your life? (1-7)
Nineveh was like a sorceress and a prostitute that promised one thing but delivered another. They promised protection to Judah as if there is no God in heaven, but delivered only death and destruction. God would expose them for what they were. There was no one who could protect them.
Dale Ralph Davis tells the story of Mussolini who stood on the balcony overlooking the Piazza Venezia on May 9, 1939, and boasted to thousands that Italy at last had her empire—a Fascist Empire. The crowd cheered calling him back to the balcony 42 times. Six years later he lay on the floor rolling in agony clutching his stomach. A doctor brought in to treat him said, What is he after all? Just a failed journalist with ulcers. Within month his body was hung by his feet in the Piazzale Loreto and abused by an angry mob.iv
Where are your comforters, and who will grieve for your life?
What are your defenses? (8-13)
Nineveh, though well-fortified, was no more impressive that Thebes. When Ashurbanipal came to the throne of Assyria all vassal states rebelled. He systematically subdued them from north to south. Thebes was 400 miles down the Nile Delta. He fought his way there and destroyed Thebes subduing what would be modern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Northern Sudan.
Yet, God caused his troops to be like women (13). This text on the surface doesn’t seem to be politically correct. There is nothing wrong with women. This text is not meant to be derogatory to women, rather there is a problem when men act like women. When you hear a noise at night, you don’t say, “Honey, get the gun and go see what that is.”
Don’t you see, you have no defenses when God moves against you in judgment.
Do you think there is no day of reckoning for the evil you have done? (14-19)
There is a day when all of your resources will fail, when all of your supports in life will be shown to be inadequate. A day of reckoning will come. What will you do then?
There is only one refuge for the soul. There is One and only One who has satisfied the wrath of God. You have no resources, no allies, no hope. What God calls you to do is simply to believe. Place your faith in the Son of God who came, lived a perfect life, paid the debt of sin we owed in His death, and rose to life to secure those who have faith in Him.
i Ibid, 97. Selections of text quoted from the annals of Ashurbanipal, as cited in Maier, 282. See also ANET, 295, 298, 300.
ii Dever, The Message of the OT , 816.
iii Robertson, NICOT, 90.
iv Davis, Stump Kingdom: Isaiah 6-12, 95-96.