Introduction to Nahum

We at Living Word IT Park will soon be working our way through the book of Nahum in a 4-week preaching series supplemented by our Bible studies in the MD groups, which I strongly encourage you to join if you are not in one already. Most people are unfamiliar with the book of Nahum, and I’d guess that it may be possible that some church-goers do not even know that there is a book of Nahum in the Bible. Nahum is one of the so-called “Minor” Prophets at the very end of the Old Testament. When I was a young boy, in order to find the Minor Prophets, I would go to the book of Matthew and just turn back a few pages. Nahum is about 20-30 pages before Matthew in most Bibles–if you still own a hard copy.

Most Christians know about the “Major” Prophets–Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel–and have heard the accounts of Daniel (even though he is not really considered a prophet in the technical sense). The only real difference between the “Minor” and the “Major” Prophets is simply the length of their prophecies. All the prophets deal with many of the same themes, and they all claim to speak for God. The time period for the Minor Prophets, though, spans nearly 500 years of Israel’s history whereas the Major Prophets span just over 150 years of Israel’s history.

The purpose of this article is to provide some basic information and background to the book of Nahum to give us some context to this ancient, yet important, book. First let us consider the question: “Who was Nahum?”

We know essentially nothing about this prophet, except for the fact that in the first verse of the book the author is identified as Nahum from Elkosh. Elkosh is never mentioned in the rest of biblical history, and to date the archaeological evidences for its location have been lost in the sands of time.

The name “Nahum” is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “comfort.” If you have already read this prophecy or are otherwise familiar with the content of the book, you might think that the name stands in stark contrast to the message that he proclaims to/against the people of Nineveh. But I offer you this curious fact. The Hebrew verb related to his name is the same word that is used in Jonah 3:9, 10 and 4:2. In Jonah 3:9 the king of Nineveh had just issued a decree for a city-wide fast and repentance in hopes that the Lord would “relent” from sending the catastrophe with which Jonah had threatened them. The word “relent” in 3:9 is from the same verbal root as the word “comfort” that is Nahum’s name. Moreover, in Jonah 3:10, the narrator tells us that the Lord did indeed “relent” from sending the calamity against the people of Nineveh within the 40 day time period indicated by Jonah. Then in Jonah 4:2, the prophet expresses his intense anger to God and reveals to the reader that his reason for not going to Nineveh in the first place was that he knew from Exodus 34:6-7 and 32:14 that the Lord was a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” He suspected that the Lord had planned to spare the wicked Ninevites from the moment he heard the instruction to get up and go to Nineveh.

This discussion raises a second question: “When did Nahum record the details of this vision that the Lord had given him concerning Nineveh?”

Put another way: “Given the above discussion of Jonah and Nahum, who both prophesied ‘against’ Nineveh, what are the relative dates for their prophecies?”

Unlike many of the other prophetic books that both identify the author and the date of his prophecy(ies) by naming the kings of Israel or Judah that were in power at the time, Nahum does not give us any specific chronological information. However, reading the book, it clearly represents that the destruction of Nineveh was still in the future–even though the report of Nineveh’s future destruction by the Babylonians and the Medes in chapters 2 and 3sounds much like a first-person account from a witness to the action. We know from other sources that this occurred in 612 B.C. So Nahum had this vision prior to 612 B.C. We also note that the destruction of Nineveh is compared in 3:8-10 to the destruction of the Egyptian city of Thebes that was devastated by the fearsome Assyrians (whose capital city is Nineveh). Thebes was obliterated by the onslaught of Assyrian forces in 663 B.C. So, Nahum saw this vision and recorded it in the book somewhere in the interim between 663 and 612 B.C. Based on other geo-political information from ancient history, we can surmise that Nahum’s prophecy dates to around 640 B.C. In terms of biblical history, this would have coincided with the beginning of King Josiah’s reign–after the 57 years of wickedness that characterized the reigns of Judah’s previous kings: Manasseh and Amon. This would have been about 18 years before Judah experienced a revival of its own. So, if Nahum’s prophecy was given in 640 B.C., this would have been about a century after the account we read about in the book of Jonah.

The third matter I want to cover in this introduction to the book of Nahum is this: “Who are the Ninevites?”

I have been talking about the Ninevites up to this point with the assumption that everyone knows something about this people. If you attended LWIT in recent months when we preached through the book of Jonah, you are at least somewhat familiar with the city of Nineveh against which Jonah preached and against whom Nahum’s vision is directed. But allow me to provide a little more background and context.

Nineveh was the capital city of the empire of Assyria. Assyria became what is recognized as the first true “world empire.” Although prior to the rise of Assyria, there were strong kingdoms in Egypt and in a place called Hatti (this was the Hittite kingdom). But Egypt and the Hittites never really grew into anything more than a regional power; they never really controlled the vast expanse of the then-known world. The Assyrians rose to preeminence and influenced all of the known world from about 935 B.C. until the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C.–a period of over 3 centuries. This was made possible through the development of military technology and power. Assyria’s military machine was fearsome and ruthless. Virtually no other nation or alliance of nations could withstand their onslaught. And no nation wanted to go down in defeat to this army because even in victory the Assyrians were vicious. Andrew Hill and John Walton inform us: “[The Babylonians] cannot compare with the Assyrians in their reputation for brutality. The barbaric military policies and practices of the Assyrians terrorized the ancient Near East for more than two centuries…. Enemies and prisoners were publicly subjected to torture that included flaying, burning alive, amputation of various body parts–including parts of the face–and various other atrocities” (Hill and Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 398).

The Assyrians tormented the kingdoms of Israel and Judah repeatedly. Prior to the time of Jonah, the kings of Israel paid “tribute” to the Assyrians to keep them from conquering their little nation. At the time of Jonah’s prophetic appeal to Nineveh, the empire was weakened, but still posed a significant threat to the viability of Israel. In a relatively short period of time after the account of Nineveh’s repentance, probably within a generation or less, there arose another ambitious king who invaded Israel, and took tribute from Israel and Judah. His name was Tiglath-pileser. The next two kings of Assyria maintained their control over Israel and eventually destroyed Israel’s capital of Samaria and sent the northern 10 tribes into exile in 722 B.C. The next king of Assyria is known to us from the biblical records. His name was Sennacherib. He invaded Judah and destroyed every city except for Jerusalem before the Lord attacked his troops leaving 185,000 soldiers dead in their sleep. The next two kings regained control over Judah at various times and exacted tribute from the people of Judah. The table offered here, adapted from the ESV Study Bible, shows the difficult history between the Assyrian Empire and the people of God in Israel and Judah.

Given the information here, you can appreciate more fully why the Lord was angry with Nineveh and the Assyrian Empire it represented. Moreover, understanding the brutality that characterized the Assyrian war machine, you should be less traumatized by the violent images in Nahum 2 and 3 that depict the overthrow of this wicked city and empire.

The next question we need to consider in this introduction of the book of Nahum is this: “Who is the intended audience of Nahum’s prophecy?”

Well, first of all, we see repeated use of the second person address, that is, the Lord, through Nahum addresses Nineveh directly. For instance, in 1:11 we read, “From you, Nineveh, has one come forth who plots evil against the LORD and devises wicked plans.” Again in 2:13 and in 3:5 the Lord says that he is against you [Nineveh]. Nahum 3 uses the pronouns you and your repeatedly to refer to Nineveh. And finally, in 3:18, the Lord addresses the king of Assyria directly.

But, as you may have correctly observed, there are no specific indications that Nahum, like Jonah, actually went to the city of Nineveh to preach this message. Moreover, there is nothing in the book, unlike the book of Jeremiah wherein Jeremiah sent representatives to Babylon to prophesy “on site” or conveyed his messages through ambassadors to the various recipients of God’s judgments. However, we cannot argue “from silence” that Nahum’s warning was never delivered to the Assyrians. We simply do not have a record that will confirm one way or the other.

This may lead you to ask, “If Assyria was not the ‘real’ audience, then why was this book written? Who was the intended audience?” I’m glad you asked. It may very well be that Nahum’s prophecy was only “distributed” to the people of God in Judah. Certainly the book betrays the fact that the Lord wanted his people to be “comforted” through the message conveyed by his prophet named “Comfort.” So, maybe my earlier statement about Nahum’s name standing in stark contrast to his message was not so accurate. If the people of Judah had been brutalized and terrorized by the Assyrians for about a century and were currently threatened by this wicked nation, then the prophecy concerning its ultimate destruction would bring hope to a distraught people. The declaration in 1:2 that the Lord is an avenging God who takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies would bring hope to the oppressed. The assertion that the Lord would not leave the guilty unpunished–drawing on the wording of Exodus 34:6-7–would have been welcomed news. As a matter of fact, in 1:9–2:2, Nahum portrays in alternating sequence the destruction of Assyria and the restoration of Judah. Thus, we can see clearly that Judah was also part of the intended audience.

Having answered the questions of authorship (vaguely), date, the identity of the Ninevites and the audience, we need to answer the question: “What is the message (or the theology) that the Lord aimed to convey to the intended audiences of Nineveh and his people Judah (and by extension, Believers today)?” I believe this can be summarized by verses 7-8 of chapter 1: “The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.” Allow me to expand on this quickly.

The book of Nahum clearly portrays the Lord as the Sovereign over all nations. The fact that the vision described in this book was given to Nahum about 30 years before the events unfolded makes it clear that the destruction of Nineveh was not simply the result of human or geo-political maneuverings. God raised up the Babylonians to execute his judgment against the Assyrians. At the time of Nahum’s prophecy, Babylon was essentially a province of the greater Assyrian Empire. But some 15 years later, an Assyrian vice-regent rebelled against the king of Assyria, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire was birthed.

The Lord’s sovereign control over the nations is a theme that Nahum shares with essentially all of the Prophets. Scholars have identified this feature as “prophetic oracles against the nations.” Examples can be found in Isaiah 13-23, Jeremiah 46-51, Ezekiel 25-31, Joel 3, Amos 1-2, Obadiah, Zephaniah 2, and Zechariah 9. Moreover, there are many places in the OT that suggest that the Lord raised up nations and appointed foreign kings to accomplish his purposes. For example, a contemporary of Nahum, a prophet named Habakkuk, had an extended dialogue with God about his decision to use the Babylonians to execute his justice against the wicked leaders of Jerusalem who had forsaken God’s ways and were oppressing God’s people. Another example from an earlier time is that of Isaiah, who about a century before the exile prophesied that a king named Cyrus would be raised up who would proclaim freedom and the release of the Judean captives from their Babylonian exile nearly 170 years later. While Nahum is not this specific in identifying the Babylonians and the Medes as the ones who would execute the Lord’s judgment against Nineveh, Nahum 1 makes it clear that the coming destruction would be carried out at the Lord’s direction.

A second theme of the book is captured by the imagery of the Lord as a Divine Warrior or Divine Avenger, which is depicted explicitly in the opening verses of the book. The imagery, however, has become unpopular in biblical scholarship and with many in the church and the society as a whole. Generally speaking, the picture most people have of God is a caricature of the biblical portrayal of God. We want to see God as a loving and generous grandfather sitting placidly on the throne of heaven. When many, who are confronted with the witness of Scripture, read that God is angry or wrathful or violent, they somehow reason that this is a violation of the Christian principles of “turning the other cheek,” of forgiving others, and of not seeking revenge. They assert, “Surely God does not behave in this way!” It just wouldn’t be right!

Many of you are familiar with the blockbuster series of Marvel movies called “The Avengers.” I have to confess that I have seen a few of the movies, but I am often confused by the story elements and sequences, but I have generally been entertained by those that I have seen. But the basic plot, as far as I can tell, is as old as storytelling itself. An evil genius grows in power and threatens the well-being of a large population or the entire population of the world (or in some cases universe). Peoples are oppressed and are growing in their desperation, but it seems that evil will overpower good and hope is all… but… extinguished. When darkness and destruction seems inevitable and injustice seems to be the rule of the day, a hero is introduced who singlehandedly or in cooperation with a small band of courageous comrades conspires to overthrow the dominion of doom. The same storyline drives the series of Star Wars movies (that were popular in my generation).

We all know how the story goes. At some point in the movie, the underdogs will begin the attack against all odds. The counterattack ensues. Death and destruction unfold for several minutes (or in some cases, throughout the entire 3 hours of the movie), but when the dust settles, the good guys emerge victorious and the evil villains are vanquished. Justice is restored and everything is as it should be. We all like these happy endings!

While there is much in the book of Nahum that offends our modern day sensibilities, I see in this book a very clear parallel to the basic storyline in the Avengers and Star Wars movies. While Nahum’s descriptions of the ravages of war are unpleasant, to say the least, these accurately describe the horrors that people faced (and continue to face) in the chaos that engulfed those present during wartime.

We need to remember some basic biblical truths as we read these three brief chapters and study this ancient text. Two of these bedrock truths–which seem to be mutually exclusive b.u.t are inextricably tied together–are that the Lord is an avenging and wrathful God and the Lord is the epitome of all that is good. Vengeance and compassion are two sides of the same coin. As Willem Vangemeren writes, “Every judgment on the wicked confirms his promise of protection given to all who suffer, trusting and awaiting the justice of God” (VanGemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word, 165-66).

Another attribute related to God’s vengeance is that of his justice. Unlike human vengeance or retribution, God’s vengeance is measured and directly proportional to the offence. His vengeance is carried out as a consequence of his justice and is regulated by his justice. If God did not exercise his vengeance against the unrighteous and the enemies of his people, then he would be unjust towards those who are oppressed.

Moreover, we need to remember that Nineveh had been warned–nearly a century earlier–through the prophet Jonah. Though the present generation acted as though they were not aware of the repentance of their forbears, it is unlikely that that memory had been completely erased from the community memory. The Assyrians were without excuse. Furthermore, the wickedness of the Assyrians was an act of willful rebellion against the Lord, as Nahum notes in 1:11, “[they] plotted evil against the Lord.” These people rejected the knowledge of the Lord as the One True God and instead worshiped carved images and worthless idols. And, as I mentioned earlier, they harassed and tormented the people of God for well over 200 years by the time Nahum saw this vision of Nineveh’s impending doom. They were ripe for judgment.

Nahum is the prophecy that Jonah really wanted to preach!

Nahum embodies a message of hope for those who faithfully live for God in a world of evil that seeks to oppress and destroy all that is good. Nahum offers a powerful reminder for those who have come to doubt the goodness of God when the forces of darkness seem to rule the day. From the very first words, Nahum depicts the glorious and fearsome coming of the Divine Avenger– both the Savior who comes with comfort for those who long for his appearing and the Warrior who will ultimately vanquish the foes of righteousness and justice. As Jesus said to the disciples so long ago, on the eve of his crucifixion and resurrection, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” May we be refreshed and encouraged as we hear and study this ancient text in the coming weeks and find relevant applications for our contemporary troubles. May our spirits be emboldened to believe that our Divine Avenger and Glorious Savior will once again break into the chaos of history and restore all things. Maranatha!