Saturday, 15 May 2021

The Book of Nahum - a comforting prophet for our times?


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I.      Introduction

This book of the prophet Nahum answers the issue that many of us will have had from time with why God doesn't DEAL with the wickedness that has led to our suffering.


Consistently in the Bible, when we have things happen to us because wicked people run rampant it is not because God is doing nothing, but because He is waiting to bring His justice so that there should be room left for His compassion.


Humans have had trouble with God showing grace to the undeserving since at least the time of Jonah’s delayed mission being played out in Nineveh, when the wicked Ninevites (much to Jonah’s annoyance) repented at his preaching.


But there are limits to God’s compassion and now eighty to a hundred years on from Jonah the Ninevites have back-slidden, and God will (as Nahum now shows us) by no means clear the guilty.


It seem one of the reasons people avoid reading this book is that it seems to be about 80% or so full of judgement, and we tend not to like the sound of a book like that, but hold up … because it’s the book of a prophet whose name translates as ‘Comfort’ … so there’s a lot more going on in this book than that!


He does always make things come right, too.


We see that being worked out in the Book of Nahum.

What is God doing about injustice?

What is God doing about wickedness?

What is He doing about evil?

Nahum says ‘God isn’t just ignoring it’, and that is why books like Nahum are full of encouragement for 'faithful remnant' Christians.


Now, structurally, the book of Nahum consists of a collection of poems that ... broadly speaking ... announce the downfall of the Empire of Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh.

It starts off announcing it is an ORACLE of Nahum, of Elkosh.

It doesn’t tell us where he is or when he is, the way other prophets do, but he dives STRAIGHT into the oracle and cuts to the chase.

The background premise to this book is that  Assyria arose as one of the world's first great Empires, constructed by means of terrible violence.

Its rise led to the incursion into the land Abraham's ancestors had entered and led to the total destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

You can read about it in 2 Kings 17.

The Assyrian armies were violent and destructive to an extent that had not been seen in the Ancient Middle East before and the people of Israel and the surrounding lands were waiting for them to get their just deserts … and it’s as if Nahum had to get right down to it straight away in 1:2, because these people had waited while they were suffering for too long already!

Relief for these folks eventually came about in 612 BC when the Babylonians rebelled against Assyria, took over Nineveh and brought down the Assyrian Empire.

So now you’re thinking Jonah and his mission to Nineveh to proclaim God’s judgement against that city for the very sins Nahum is talking about, and you're thinking here is Nahum now prophecying judgement instead of mercy for them.

Classically, Jonah shows God’s passion to show compassion, in contrast to Jonah’s anger at it.

We know from Exodus 34 that God is gracious and compassionate but we also know from there that He does not leave the guilty unpunished.

The book of Nahum is the other side of the book of Jonah.


God delays in destroying evil empires because of His compassion, but there are limits to that in terms of patience and He will always see that things work out in the face of no, or even just temporary (or not heart-felt) repentance.


And that’s what the book of Nahum is all about.


The first poem in Nahum’s oracle takes up the whole of chapter 1.


II.     Assyria's rise & Fall, 1:1-15

Please don't run away with the idea that this is just an angry tirade against Israel's enemies.

This opening chapter shows there is much more than that going on here.


It starts with an acrostic (alphabet) poem using the next letter of the alphabet to start the next line, but it doesn't actually finish the alphabet, creating the sense of inherent brokenness and disruption.


And against that background what it describes is a powerful appearance of God's Glory.


A.       God appears in Glory, 1:1-8

As in Isaiah 13-23, this chapter contains a series of judgment oracles against various nations.


It is likely that Israel, not the nations mentioned, actually heard these oracles.

But the oracles probably had a twofold purpose:

  • For those leaders who insisted on getting embroiled in international politics, these oracles were a reminder that Judah need not fear foreign nations or seek international alliances for security reasons.

  • For the righteous remnant within the nation, these oracles were a reminder that Israel’s God was indeed the sovereign ruler of the earth, worthy of his people’s trust.

This appearance of God is Biblically consistent, as it …

1.       Echoes the beginning of Micah & the end of Habakkuk

And it's all about God coming in His power to confront the Nations about their injustice and bring judgement on their sin.

 

2.       Key idea: 1:3

It echoes God's self-description from straight after the Golden Calf incident in Exodus 34:6-7

 

"The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;

    the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.

The Lord takes vengeance on his foes

    and vents his wrath against his enemies.

3 The Lord is slow to anger but great in power;

    the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished."

                         Nahum 1:2-3


There are MANY sentences in these first early verses of Nahum that begin with the words ‘the Lord is’ or something like it, and the reason for that is that …

The refuge of God’s confused and pressurised people is His CHARACTER.


And then as this develops in this first chapter of Nahum, we get this amazing statement in v. 7


In the midst of ALL of this we read that 


The Lord is good,
   a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him”


The greatest comfort we can get is to find God’s comfort in the very teeth of suffering.


It doesn’t help to know that God is just and He is powerful, unless we also know that God is good.


And having established that truth about the Lord, Nahum …


B.       Contrasts fate of arrogant Nations and God's faithful remnant,1:9-15

God will not leave evil unpunished .... so the rest of the poem now goes back and forth, contrasting the fate of the Nations and the fate of God's faithful remnant who continue to put their trust in Him.


When God brings down all the arrogant Empires, He will provide refuge for those who humble themselves before Him.

 

C.       An interesting feature ...

God nowhere mentions by name Assyria or Nineveh when He gives Nahum the oracle in chapter 1.

When he's describing the fall of Assyria, Nahum uses the language of Isaiah about the fall of Babylon ... in (for example) Isaiah 10 & 14 ... which happened much later in history.

And Nahum also describes the downfall of the bad guys as 'Good News' for the remnant of God's people.

It's a direct reference to Isaiah's use of the same term to describe the downfall of Babylon.


These apparently small details of chapter 1 all gather together to make a key point:


The fall of Nineveh is being portrayed as an example of

·       how God is at work in history in every age

·       how He will not allow the violent Empires of each age to endure for ever.


It is a message remarkably similar to that of the Book of Daniel.


Assyria stands in a long line of violent Empires throughout history (Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Rome ... fill in the gaps for the European ones) and Nineveh's fate is a model of how God will bring down the violent and the arrogant nationalist expansionism of every age.


It is only having established THAT, that the book returns to its focus on Assyria.


All that we’ve learned about God in chapter 1, now gets fleshed out in history with Assyria and the Ninevites in chs. 2-3.


Here is encouragement for God’s suffering people because her they can see that even when it seems like God’s doing NOTHIHG, THIS sort of God is going to make it right.


We see this consistently in Scripture whenever God’s Kingdom is coming in.


When it’s coming in what it always does is to put things right.


III.    The Battle and Fall of the city of Nineveh, 2:1-13

Nineveh (which we can name now as Nahum’s focus) is in Northern Syria, a very important ancient city of Mesopotamia ... which means the land between two rivers (the Tigris and the Euphrates) … and Nineveh is close to modern Mosul in Iraq.


It’s been excavated there are two sites there … one they can’t do much with because it is close to an Islamic shrine, but at the other they found tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets including records and texts and oracles from Ashurbanipal’s personal library.

It got found in the archives of the British Museum.


All the historical stuff we’re reading about here is real stuff.


Incidentally Thebes gets mentioned in chapter 3 … there’s actually a relief of the Assyrians destroying Thebes in the British Museum.


Looking at this sort of stuff you begin to understand the sort of people the Assyrians are.

If you were walked into their buildings in Nineveh as a captive, you’d see all this militaristic, violent stuff on reliefs covering over all the walls.

All their art ever seems to celebrate is extreme violence: flaying people alive, tearing people’s limbs off, every sort of torture then known to man.

They were a really gory sort of lot.


So this second chapter of Nahum is really a bit like a book I had as a ten year old which was a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Waterloo ... but this is an awful lot shorter and is not about Belgium but Nineveh.


What you read here then in chapter 2 is about the front line of the infantry, then the charge of the chariots, then the chaos among the defenders (in this case on the city walls) as the defences are breached then the slaughter and the plunder of the people and the city.


And here is the terrifying reality:


‘I am against you,’
    declares the Lord Almighty.”

              Nahum 2:13


That ‘I am against you’ ties together chapters 2 & 3 (2:13 resonates still in 3:5).


These are verses that check our spiritual pulse.

Do we really believe there’ll be a future judgement of the enemies of God as well as people who you also know and love and care for?


It will really exert a weakening spiritual influence on the way you live your life if you do not.


But then remember that to God’s people the Apostle Paul will write in Romans 8:31:


“If God is for us, who can be against us?”


If we’re in Christ these words of God’s declared opposition will never be heard by us.


Well, the fall of Assyria moves on in chapter 3.

IV.     Downfall of Assyria as a whole, 3:1-19

This chapter really describes the effects of the fall of the capital city on the Empire as a whole, following on from the destruction of the capital city of Nineveh.

 

A.       Woe, 3:1

It starts with a woe on the city whose Kings built it on the blood of the innocent.

Here’s the headline written over Nahum chapter 3.


It shows how injustice was built into the system that made Assyria so successful.


There does seem to be a call for repentance, but we’re not seeing the holding out of hope now as there was with Jonah ... it’s gone far past that.


In Nahum the time for restoration is now the past.


By now for Assyria and for Nineveh …


B.       Institutional Violence had sowed the seeds of its destruction

The sort of experience prophesied for Assyria in verses 5-6 are the sort of physical and sexual abuse captives in warfare could expect to receive in the Ancient Near East, and the stone reliefs on Nineveh’s walls recorded them doing this to the people they had conquered.

‘I am against you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
    ‘I will lift your skirts over your face.
I will show the nations your nakedness
    and the kingdoms your shame.
I will pelt you with filth,
    I will treat you with contempt
    and make you a spectacle.”

                  Nahum 3:5-6

 

This was part of the systemic violence the Assyrians embraced and that now in the judgement of God they were going to experience.

Incidentally, the rebellious people of God in the Old Testament have similar promised to them … this isn’t a matter of race or ethnicity.

This is a matter of sin.


C.       Ancient Near Eastern 'Taunt Song' against the Fallen King of Assyria, 3:19


The King is stricken and wounded and 

no-one from all the Nations comes to help him, 

rather they sing and they celebrate his destruction.


V.      Conclusion

So is this a gloomy book?


People seem to avoid it for that reason, but, well ... we have to say, yes and no.


Nahum addresses the tragedy and the pain of on-going cycles of violent oppression and human suffering in every age.

I take it that you've read or seen or heard the news this week?


Human history is filled with human tribes and nation states getting above themselves with God and using violence to take what they want, and that always seems to involve the killing of the innocent.


Nahum uses Assyria and Babylon as examples to tell us that God is aggrieved by this phenomenon and that He cares about the brutality and suffering and all manifestations of violent killing of the innocent.


And Nahum shows us that God's essential character ... His goodness and His justice ... compel Him to organise the downfall of violent, acquisitive, and repressive nations.


And, you know, Nahum portrays this as Good News, that God's judgement should fall on such evil ... unless of course you happen to identify with Assyria.


You see, the conclusion of that opening poem in chapter 1 tells us that the Lord is good and a refuge in the day of distress.


He cares (1:7) for those who take refuge in Him.


And the invitation of Nahum, then, to every reader is to humble themselves before God's justice, and to trust Him that in HIS time He will bring down the violent oppressors of every time and every place, while continuing to sustain the lives of all of those who are His faithful remnant.

 


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