We know virtually nothing about Nahum, other than that this prophet was a magnificent poet. We have his name, this short masterpiece from him, and the fact that he was probably from Judah, from a town called Elkosh. He prophesied after the fall of Thebes (3:8) in Egypt (664-663 B.C.) but prior to the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.
“The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; And he knoweth them that trust in him. But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies” (Nahum 1:7–8).
Summary of the Text
The book is a series of fierce taunts and denunciations of Nineveh, that great city of the Assyrians. These denunciations alternate with various reassurances and promises for Judah. After the attribution, the book begins with a triumphant hymn to God the Warrior (1:2-8), which serves as the introduction to the first great oracle (1:9-2:2). This whole thing is an acrostic poem. Nahum then gives us a vision of Nineveh’s ruin (2:3-10), followed up by a taunt (2:11-13). Then comes a series of oracles and taunts about Nineveh’s inevitable collapse (3:1-17), and the book concludes with a satirical dirge over the fallen empire of Assyria (vv. 18-19).
A Little Background
The modern city of Mosul in Iraq is the location of the ancient city of Nineveh. The modern Kurds who live near there are (loosely) descendants of the Medes, who were the people who destroyed Nineveh. One of the images that Nahum uses to taunt the Assyrians is the figure of a lion (2:11-13), a lion without a lair. This was a symbol that the Assyrians used for themselves. Isaiah had used the same image a century earlier in order to inspire fear among the Israelites (Is. 5:26-30). For more background, you might want to read 2 Kings 17-23 and 2 Chron. 33-34.
Consolation of Judah
The first chapter alternates between condemning Assyria and consoling Judah. Bad news for Nineveh will be good news for Judah (1:12-13). Though God had once afflicted Judah, He will now do so no more. Then a promise is given to Judah a few verses later (1:15). Good news comes from the mountain, with the feet of the one who brings good news—the wicked will be completely destroyed. The remainder of the book is good news for Judah that comes in the form of desolation for Nineveh.
The Courage of Nahum
Jonah had prophesied destruction against Nineveh a century earlier, and Nineveh had repented. Now they have cycled downward again, and Nahum brings a hostile prophecy, far more barbed than Jonah’s simple message had been. The first thing to note is that Nahum brings this word when Assyria is at the height of its power. “Thus saith the Lord; Though they be quiet, and likewise many, Yet thus shall they be cut down, when he shall pass through” (Nahum 1:12a).
During the entire time when Nahum could have conducted his ministry, Judah was a vassal state of Assyria. This would have been some time during the reign of Manasseh and/or Josiah. Nahum’s message would have been incendiary, but there is no sign that Nahum trimmed his prophesies to be more soothing to the easily offended.
The Law of Nations
A very common notion among evangelical Christians is that the law of the Old Testament was for the Jews. Not only do many think that the Old Testament is inapplicable to us, but they also believe that it did not apply to the Gentile nations of the Old Testament. One great problem for this view is that the prophets of God frequently speak to the Gentile nations in terms of fierce ethical rebuke. This happens, for example, in Jonah. It happens in Amos. And it certainly happens here. But what standard applies to a Gentile nation like Assyria?
The God of the Nations
The answer is straightforward, at least for those who those who refuse to divide the cosmos up into different jurisdictions—some for God and the rest for the devil. Jesus has been given the name that is above every name, and this means that in principle all belongs to Him. God is Lord by virtue of creation, and God is Lord again by virtue of the power of the blood of Christ. When the Day of Judgment arrives, no one will be able to draw an arbitrary line and argue that the sin wasn’t really a sin because he was standing on this side of it.
Listen to the following words and reflect on the solemn fact that God is just:
“Woe to the bloody city! It is all full of lies and robbery; The prey departeth not; The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, And of the pransing horses, and of the jumping chariots. The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: And there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; And there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses: Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, The mistress of witchcrafts, That selleth nations through her whoredoms, And families through her witchcrafts. Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts; And I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, And I will shew the nations thy nakedness, And the kingdoms thy shame” (Nahum 3:1–5 ).
God of All
God is God of all. He is the source of all law, and the end of all justice. He is the only possible source of salvation—which He had shown earlier even to Nineveh. God’s
jurisdictions are unified. God’s authority is unified. God’s law and God’s gospel are unified. God’s voice in Scripture and God’s character in nature are unified. When God testifies, He never contradicts Himself. His grace and His justice do not contradict. His mountain ranges and His prophetic poets do not contradict. Only a fool or a pagan would say that God’s authority can be in any way divided. Why would we ever go along with the lie that our God is the god of the hills while their gods are the gods of the plains?
But though God is never divided, there is only one way for sinners to see and understand that lack of division—and that is to look to Christ on the cross, straight on.