1 An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. God’s Wrath Against Nineveh 2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. 5 The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. 6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
In the British Museum, one can find the following relief, carved from 700 to 692 BC:
The Ancient History Encyclopedia describes what is happening in this scene:
This wall relief depicts the Assyrian king Sennacherib after the fall of Lachish (Lakhisha), the second largest city in Judah Kingdom. The king sits on a marvelous throne and watches prisoners. He also greets an Assyrian official who appears to be in very close proximity to him, almost touching the king. This man most likely represents the commander-in-chief of the Assyrian army.
The cuneiform inscriptions read “Sennacherib, the mighty king, king of the country of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, before the city of Lakhisha. I give permission for its slaughter.”
Sennacherib’s face appears to be deliberately damaged, most probably by an enemy soldier after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE.
It is no stretch to say that the scene depicted in that relief set the stage for the little Old Testament book of Nahum. The IVP Bible Background Commentary states that Nahum “most likely dates to the period between 663 B.C….and the fall of [Nineveh] to a combined army of Babylonians and Medes in 612 B.C..”
The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was its capital, had harassed and persecuted Judah for a very long time! Here is a nice summary of the historical situation:
Assyria was the Great Power that threatened Israel and Judah from the middle of the ninth century B.C. on. She had made Israel part of her provincial system after the fall of Samaria in 720 B.C. and had been taking tribute from Judah. Sennacherib’s attack in 701 B.C., after Hezekiah rebelled and withheld his tribute payment, left the country in ruins, with only Jerusalem intact (see 2 Kings 18-19). Judah was again a tributary.
What we find in the little book of Nahum, then, is a divine promise of future deliverance in the midst of current distress. As such, its value lay in the fact that (1) it is God’s word to us, (2) it records God’s faithfulness to His beleaguered children, and (3) it offers hope to us in the midst of our own trials.
In the darkest of days, we must take comfort in the character of our great God.
The first note of hope we find in the book of Nahum can be found in the first two words of the first verse:
1An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. God’s Wrath Against Nineveh
The fact that God speaks, that there is “an oracle,” is a powerful display of divine grace, for God’s speaking reminds us that He does not leave His children without hope in the midst of the trial. What is more, that Nahum would prophesy a word from God at this particular time was surprising to his hearers, to say the least! Mark Dever writes:
Keep in mind, Nahum’s prophecy would have been written in the fifty-year stretch between Thebes’s fall in 663 and Nineveh’s fall in 612. He wrote, in other words, when, from Judah’s standpoint, Assyria was at the height of its power and the empire was intact. What could Nahum have been thinking! He was a prophet from a tiny nation speaking to the greatest empire in the world. How
I do so love the brazen audacity of an oracle of judgment being offered against a power that by any human reckoning held all the reins of power! Our God speaks to Judah and to us to remind us that even when it appears that the powers of darkness hold all the cards, they never really do. God is always and ever in control! And while this fact may cause us to wonder why God allows Assyria the sway He allows them, it must never cause us to abandon hope or to question the goodness of God!
God willrespond to evil men and evil deeds.
The book of Nahum establishes a firm theology of God’s justice and wrath against evildoing. While these are hard words, they too comfort the persecuted and harassed people of God.
2 The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. 5 The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. 6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
God is a jealous God (v.2a). His eye sees the mistreatment of His children at the hands of wicked men! His face is turned in fury toward Assyria’s abusive handling of His beloved. Edward Dalglish put it beautifully when he wrote:
Yahweh is jealous in the sense that he cannot deny himself; he cannot be less or other that he is. His jealousy is that motivation within his being which secures what is his and reacts against all that would arrogate to itself that which is uniquely his.
Furthermore, Nahum says that God is avenging (v.2a, 2b, 2c), is wrathful (v.2b, 2c, 6b, 6c, 6d), is great in power (v.3a), will by no means clear the guilty (v.3b), and Has indignation (v.6a) toward those who commit evil.
I hardly need to point out that we live in a church age that does not know what to make of such blunt assertions of the wrath of God. We live in a day in which the dominant conception of God has no room for wrath, no space for divine fury. Perhaps this is because we cannot help conceiving of such in terms of our own wrath, our own fury. But this is not a good measure of God’s wrath! His wrath is not like our own. Matthew Henry wrote of God’s wrath:
He has fury(so the word is) not as man has it, in whom it is an ungoverned passion, but he has it in such a way as becomes the righteous God. He is Lord of anger(so the Hebrew phrase is for that which we read, he is furious); he has anger, but he has it at command and under government. Our anger is often lord over us, as theirs that have no rule over their own spirits, but God is always Lord of his anger and weighs a path to it…
Yes, God never loses His temper. God never loses His cool. God’s wrath is held by Him and exercised by Him in perfect proportion and with perfect justice. The evil of the earth stokes the fires of the wrath of God, and even with our inability to conceive rightly of God’s wrath we know that evil is a fit object of it. We know there must be justice against the rising tide of injustice. We simply must come to trust that God is able to execute such justice.
But here we must pause. The other extreme to the modern age’s rejection of God’s wrath is the perversion of it in some quarters of the church into a macabre spectacle of man’s rage writ large. I am thinking of angry Christians who seem to yearn with sadistic delight for the damnation of the wicked. Yet can we forget what Jesus said in Matthew 7 to the masses assembled at the Sermon on the Mount?
11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
The reality of God’s wrath should not make us rejoice with glee. Rather, it should make us tremble? Why? Because we are included in the “you…who are evil” of Matthew 7! Jesus spoke that word to the masses, to the world, to you and to me!
While the reality of divine justice and the right wrath of God against all evil gives comfort to God’s suffering children, it should first give pause to all of God’s children! Let us never forget that had Jesus Christ not provided a way through the cross and the empty tomb for forgiveness and reconciliation with God, the very wrath that Nahum speaks of would rightly fall upon you and me!
Yet God’s wrath, while pure, is restrained.
Even so, in the midst of this amazing expression of the wrath of God, there is a note of hope.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
What beautiful hope this is! The God of wrath is the God of love! He is as perfect in one as He is in the other. He has wrath, but He is restrained in His use of it. Why is this? Why does He not rain down His full wrath on us now? Peter explains in 2 Peter 3:
9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Peter tells us that the reason God restrains His wrath is because of His love for us. He does not wish “that any should perish.” These words accomplish two things: (1) they establish the reality and thoroughness of God’s wrath (i.e., we will “perish” if we are the recipients of it) and (2) they establish that God’s wrath is never detached from God’s love, that it does not “go off the rails,” so to speak. God is perfect in all of His attributes, in both His love and His wrath, and all of His attributes exist in perfect harmony with each other within Himself.
We should tremblebefore the wrath of God! We should rejoicebefore the love of God! We should worshipbefore it all, for there is no one like our God!
In “The Repentance of Robert Greene,” Greene makes an amazing statement about the two thieves on the cross that is often (though, apparently, wrongly) attributed to St. Augustine. The summary of Greene’s statement that is so popular today goes like this: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
The beauty of this statement is that it gets to the heart of the balance we should have in thinking of both the wrath of God and the love of God. The wrath of God should keep us from arrogant presumption. There will indeed be a reckoning, whether for Nineveh or you or me! The love of God should keep us from despair. There is hope, now, and mercy in Jesus Christ! And it is being offered to you here and now. Will you receive it? I pray you will.
John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.787.
Alan R. Millard, “Nahum.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 149-150.
Edward Dalglish, “Nahum.” Broadman Bible Commentary.(Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1972), 237-238.
Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible.(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), 1158.
Ruby Cohn, A Beckett Canon. (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), p.399, n.17.