A Nation Under Judgment
A Study in the Minor Prophets: Nahum
July 1, 2002 - This article continues our Bible study on the Minor Prophets. Top Bible scholars explain the major themes of these books—and show how the prophets' messages affect us today.
by O. Palmer Robertson
Never in the history of the world has an empire or a nation stood forever. Egypt, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, Austria, Britain, Germany, Russia—they have all eventually fallen from their pinnacle of greatness and glory. Will the United States prove to be the one exception in the whole of human history?
People may acknowledge that some day the United States also will fall; however, most Americans, Christian and otherwise, comfort themselves in a way similar to King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah consoled himself with the thought that his kingdom's devastation would not come in his own day.(1)
But somehow we need to reckon with God's message through Nahum. Seven centuries before Christ the great city of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, towered over the surrounding nations. The extent of Assyria's empire was greater than that of any previous empire. In Nahum's day Nineveh basked in the brilliance of its greatest glory.
However, Nahum had something to say on the subject: Nineveh shall fall. For three chapters this disturbing prophetic voice drums the same beat: Nineveh shall fall. Let us consider various aspects of God's message through Nahum and the way they speak to us today.
The Messenger and the Message
We know very little about Nahum. He is only a voice, which is the case with many of God's prophets in the Bible. The reason that the Bible's message should be believed does not rest with the noteworthy character of its messengers. Instead, the prophet's words need to be believed because they come directly from God.
Nahum's message is called a book, a burden and a vision.(2) It is a book, meaning it has a unified message. It is a burden, because its message is all about God's coming judgment. It is a vision, because it originates in God and not in human imagination. This word needs to be heard, because it originates with God and not with men.
The Nation Under Judgment
For 200 years Nineveh, as the capital city of Assyria, had amassed wealth by brutally robbing other nations of their treasures. The cruelty of the city is compared to a lion filling its den with the carcasses of its victims.(3) Engraving on stone monuments, the Assyrians boasted of their own brutality, describing their custom of tearing the skin off people, blinding eyes, boring through jaws, and cutting off fingers, lips and noses. The city is described as a lusting harlot, an alluring mistress who enslaved nations by her prostitution.(4)
In light of God's response to Nineveh, each nation in the world, including the United States, needs to search her conscience. Have we abused our economic, political and military power to the impoverishment of less fortunate nations in the world?
Have we used our nearly unlimited talents as displayed in movie, television and stage productions to lure people into lifestyles of degradation and sin? Has the advertising industry led the world to worship things rather than to worship God who made them? These are the kinds of searching questions that we can draw from Nahum and apply to today.
The Nature of God
Finally, we should consider the nature of God who speaks this prophetic message. He has many facets in His Personhood.
My own spirit leaps for joy when I observe the goodness and the greatness of God. Home and family, music and garden, are His gracious gifts. By His Word and His Spirit He provides assurance of forgiven sins, guidance through daily life and hope for the life to come.
At other times I am fearful of God as a just judge. The Bible says that in the day of judgment I will have to give account for every idle word I have spoken.(5)
Yet these differing aspects of God's Person do not conflict with one another. Instead, they remain in perfect harmony.
Three times in the first lines of Nahum's prophecy he mentions God's vengeance.(6) Why the repetition? Because people find it difficult to think of God as vengeful. Yet He has said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay."(7) It was important that Nahum first establish that his message was not his own but came as a vision from God.
To underscore the point, Nahum followed up immediately with an elaboration of his statement: God "reserves wrath"(8) and "will not leave the guilty unpunished."(9) He is a master of wrath, controlling and dispensing His judgments in accordance with the principles of perfect justice.
Some people think that God automatically will forgive their sin, no matter what. So what does it mean when Nahum says that God "will not leave the guilty unpunished"?(9) It means that there can be no forgiveness apart from a person's personal connection with the one point where human sin was righteously dealt with.
The payment that people can expect for every sin is death, since God's bond with man has always been on the basis of life for obedience and death for disobedience. Only by the outpouring of Jesus' lifeblood in the place of sinners can there be pardon for sin by the righteous God. Without Jesus' death in substitution for sinners, there can be no remission of sins.
But after speaking of wrath and punishment, Nahum emphasized a second aspect of God's Person: "The Lord is good, A stronghold in the day of trouble, And He knows those who take refuge in Him."(10)
Now the fuller picture of the nature of God becomes clear. God is not only righteous and just; He is good and worthy of trust. He forever treats all human beings in a just and a loving way.
Through the offering of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, God has shown just how good He is. His love for sinful people surpasses human comprehension. God will not absolve the guilty of blame, but through the blood of Jesus He has made a way of forgiveness for all who will trust Him. Just as a forgiven sinner today finds great comfort in his deliverance from divine judgment through forgiveness in Christ, so the people of Judah must have been greatly comforted to hear the good news that came through Nahum's prophecy.
These two aspects of God were made real to me almost 50 years ago in Jackson, Mississippi, at a Billy Graham Crusade. When the invitation was extended to receive Christ, I responded to God's offer of forgiveness. Since that day, I have found God to be faithful to His word as it is found in every part of the Bible. He is just, and He will not clear the guilty apart from faith in Jesus His Son. But He shows unfailing love to any and all who will put their trust in Him.
The Final Question
Nahum and Jonah are the only books in the Bible that end with a question. In the book of Jonah, written about 100 years before Nahum, God asks Jonah: "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city?"(12) The question is a response to Jonah's anger when Nineveh repented of great evil and escaped judgment. It is proof that God had previously offered mercy to Nineveh.
But Nahum's final question to Nineveh is: "Who has not felt your endless cruelty?"(13) The implication of the question is that God will soon bring judgment on this nation for her abuse of power.
God is just and will not leave the guilty unpunished. God will judge righteously the nations of the world. But also God is merciful and knows all those who trust in Him. That is the message of Nahum even for today. Today also all nations and individuals are called to repentance and faith before the day of God's final judgment comes for them.