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by Henry Brinton, June 23 2020

Stay-at-Home Scripture Study 34: Nahum

Nahum 1:1-11


Nahum is just three chapters in length, and the first describes the LORD as “avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). The second and third chapters focus on Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and Nahum predicts the destruction of this “city of bloodshed” (Nah 3:1). The first verse of the book identifies it as “an oracle concerning Nineveh” (Nah 1:1) — the word oracle comes from the Latin orare, “to speak,” and describes a word from God delivered by a prophet. “This particular connection makes the poetry of Nahum into a celebration of the fall of Nineveh,” says Walter Brueggemann. Since Assyrian military power was uncommonly harsh and brutal, “the undoing of the empire and the fall of its capital city of Nineveh must have evoked great relief and joy.”

The “LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries,” says Nahum. “The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty” (Nah 1:2-3). Here, the character of God is “announced as the one who seek vengeance,” observes Brueggemann, “and who will ‘make a full end’ to those who resist [God’s] sovereignty.” God’s vengeance is not arbitrary violence, but “an imposition of divine sovereignty on a recalcitrant subject.” The power of God is seen in nature, when “the mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it” (Nah 1:5). Nahum sees God as sovereign, the supreme ruler of all that exists. In the words of a contemporary praise song: “There’s thunder in His footsteps / And lightning in His fists (Our God is an Awesome God) …”

“Who can stand before [God’s] indignation?” asks Nahum. “Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire” (Nah 1:6). “There is something deeply appealing about a vision of a retributive God who finally comes to set things right,” says professor of religion Francisco García-Treto, “to subdue the unruly powers, and to establish sovereign rule over the nations. There is great comfort in the conviction that evil will be brought to a final reckoning.” Nahum knows, however, that the sovereign God is not all anger and wrath. “The LORD is good,” says the prophet, “a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood” (Nah 1:7-8). The anger and wrath of God is directed specifically toward those who have oppressed the people of Israel, and Nahum says that God “will make an end” to Nineveh; “like drunkards they are drunk; they are consumed like dry straw” (Nah 1:9-10). He believes that it is ultimately impossible to oppose God or to frustrate God’s plans.

Overall, the book of Nahum focuses on two qualities of God that are often misunderstood: Vengeance and wrath. If used to describe the emotions of God, these words make God sound demonic. But if they are applied to God’s work of justice, they can be seen in a positive light. In biblical thought, “God’s vengeance is an expression of his holiness,” says David Ewert of the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. Typically “understood as God’s way of redressing wrongs,” vengeance is “directed at those who oppose him and who refuse to acknowledge his commands.” Vengeance is designed to turn wrong into right, and to advance God’s work in the world. Closely related to vengeance is the wrath of God, which is always directed toward injustice. When abolitionist Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, she saw God’s wrath at work in the Civil War: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword / His truth is marching on.”

An accurate understanding of Nahum requires that you see God’s work from the perspective of an oppressed person, such as a slave during the Civil War. Otherwise, the wrath of God seems excessively harsh. But if you put yourself in the position of a slave, then God’s judgments make perfect sense, and you find inspiration in words such as: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, / While God is marching on.” Since the people of Israel had suffered oppression, the wrath of God was experienced by them as a welcome relief. They understood that God’s anger was a part of God’s divine justice, and that the wrath of God could have positive results. From beginning to end, the Bible teaches us that God answers the cries of faithful people and saves them from destruction.

This passage from Nahum is one of the Bible’s greatest hits because it reminds us that God is on the side of those who are victims of unjust people or institutions. The harsh words of Nahum are a warning to us that we should not turn into oppressors, because God punishes those who oppress the weak, the different, and the unpopular. “His wrath is poured out like fire,” says Nahum, on those who oppress God’s people (Nah 1:6). Throughout the Bible, God is judgmental of human power and pride, but supportive of those who trust in God and God’s ways.

Questions:

1. Where do you see the sovereignty of God most clearly?

2. What are your reactions to passages that speak of God’s wrath and vengeance?

3. How do you believe that God works for justice in the world?

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by Henry Brinton

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