If taken out of its context, the book of Nahum is a tough read. It begins with "The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The lord…maintains his wrath against his enemies… He rebukes the sea and dries it up,…The mountains quake before him,… The earth trembles at his presence…His wrath is poured out like fire…The rocks are shattered before him." And that's just for openers. The target of this venom is Nineveh, the same city God showed mercy to in the book of Jonah. So how can we hear these words – is this an inspired communication from God? And what brought about such a severe change in this message?
Most scholars attribute the change to the passing of a century or two. Dating is always challenging with the prophetic texts, but most scholars comfortably place Nahum's writing towards the middle of the seventh century. Nahum seems to know about the destruction of Thebes (663 BCE), but has not witnessed the beginning of the decline of Assyria (626 BCE). Splitting the difference places his prophecies around 645 BCE.
Within its context, then, Nahum's prophecies reflect a long and painful oppression of Israel by Assyria. It began as early as the ninth century when Shalmaneser III (858-824 BCE) levied a tribute on Jehu during one of his campaigns. By 810 Assyria had claimed the submission of Israel and dubbed it "Omri-land." Things got worse after Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BCE) invaded the land. He writes that he not only extracted a large tribute from "Omri-land," but he also took their inhabitants to Assyria. When faced with the choice of submission or resistance to Assyria, the southern kingdom generally chose submission. That didn't help the kings of the north, and when they finally turned to Egypt for help, Assyria invaded. The siege of Samaria was finalized by Sargon II in 722 BCE. This cataclysm was interpreted as just rewards for Israel's many sins. It was seen as chastisements from the Lord for their idolatry and unfaithfulness to the covenant. The warnings from the prophets had gone unheeded, and the Day of the Lord had arrived. Having said that, however, Assyria continued and even advanced its brutal policies by being a ruthless ruler.
Nahum's audience, then, was the remnant still suffering after generations of oppression. The Israelites had been convicted by their misdeeds; they accepted that. Their question now was whether God had totally abandoned them, or worse, was God able to deliver them from the hands of the heathen nations who had been God's very instruments of judgment. And no nation was as cruel or as arrogant as Assyria had been. This became a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. The one sent to judge was far worse than the nations judged. The people's lament (much like Habakkuk's to come) was "How long, O Lord…?"
Into this moment of despair and darkness came the voice of Nahum, saying God was not just their God but also a national God, whose power extended over all the nations. Written to the people of Judah who had watched Assyria run unchecked for over a century, and who had barely survived its terror and destructiveness, these words put across a powerful message. This book doesn't address any of Judah's failings, just Assyria's. There are few books more nationalistic. There is no love expressed for any of Nineveh's citizens, no concern for what's ahead for them. The book is dripping with vengeance and mockery and even hatred. Several commentators have likened the situation to the scourge of Hitler and other despots. The oppressed have been known to express delight upon their potential demise.
Nahum had an unshakeable conviction that the ones sent to judge would themselves be judged. God could not allow evil to go unpunished regardless of whether it was a pagan nation or His own covenant people. No power on earth could stand against God. For this reason, Nahum had cause to celebrate. In the end, he knew that divine justice would triumph. In a deep sense, the book of Nahum speaks to faith when faith is faltering. The graphic and poetic imagery of Nineveh's demise is a testament to God's sovereignty and strength. The ruins of Nineveh will be good news for the people of God.
Apart from this book, nothing is known about the prophet called Nahum. The only other reference to this name occurs in the New Testament where someone else is clearly in mind. Some scholars think Nahum is a shortened version of Nehemiah. His name as it stands means "comforted," or "consoled." He is called an Elkoshite, but scholars do not agree on the location of Elkosh. Most favor an area in the south because by the time Nahum was writing, the northern kingdom had already fallen.
The book is generally divided into two sections. The first defines the anger of the Lord, 1:1-11. The second describes the fall of Nineveh, 2-3.
The Anger of the Lord 1:1-15
- Oracle concerning Nineveh; book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh
- Revelation of God's awesome power
- Mainly characterized by God's justice
- Awesome display of majesty
- Entire creation is affected
- Judicial indictment
- Conspiracy against the Lord
- God's supreme authority renders guaranteed outcome
- God will bring their evil to an end
- The sentence
- There will be a complete reversal in fortunes of opposing nations
- Assyria's might will be shattered
- Judah's bondage will be shattered
- Nineveh will be annihilated; there will be no survivors
- The purpose of the Lord
- Good news of salvation; proclamation of peace
- The feet of one who brings good news, who proclaims peace
- Judah's worship will be restored, independent
Fall of Nineveh 2:1-3:19
- A warning and a promise
- Attack is coming, Nineveh should beware
- Promise of restoration for Judah
- Details of Nineveh's destruction
- Initial onslaught
- Attack will be led by chariots – formidable foe
- Conflict will be in the streets of the city
- Failing defenses
- Main line of defense is breached; heart of the city is destroyed
- Gates are opened, palace collapses
- Inhabitants are carried away; treasures are plundered
- Analogy of beasts of prey
- Assyria had been likened to savage beast of prey
- Filled its coffers on backs of conquered lands
- The Lord's judgment
- Verdict of condemnation
- Military will be defeated
- Nineveh will have no prey – its cruelty will be over
- Voices of the messengers will no longer be heard
- Announcement of the verdict
- Woe to the city of blood, full of lies and plunder and victims
- Summation linking the crime to its punishment
- Further description of destruction
- Resumption of battle scene
- Casualties too numerous to count; people stumble over them
- Analogy of harlot
- Nineveh had also enslaved nations by her prostitution (and witchcraft)
- City had long sacrificed any semblance of moral behavior
- Nineveh had been alluring; sucked the life out of those enticed by her
- The judgment of the Lord
- Lord overturns the city's brutality
- Metaphor of humiliation and disgrace of the harlot
- Violence has been met with violence
- Nineveh will be treated with contempt and made a spectacle
- Announcement of the verdict
- All will flee from Nineveh; there will be no one to mourn
- (Indeed, this is one of the mysteries of all antiquity. For all its glory, Nineveh was never rebuilt. It went from unrivaled prominence to desolation within a span of 80 years and was obliterated from memory. No other land was pillaged so completely. It was literally forgotten!)
- Third description of Nineveh's destruction
- Reference to destruction of Thebes (664 BCE)
- None of her resources, palaces could protect her
- She was taken captive and went into exile
- The same fate awaits Assyria
- Fourth description of Nineveh's destruction
- No refuge will withstand onslaught
- Attacking Nineveh will be no more difficult than picking ripe fruit
- Soldiers are weak, ineffective
- Siege of the city will be effective;
- Analogy and judgment from the Lord
- Conquest will be by fire and sword
- Evokes images of locusts and grasshoppers
- Nothing will be left
- Merchants will strip the land and fly away
- Guards and officials will disappear like the locusts on sunny day
- Those claiming to serve Nineveh will all abandon her
- Nation will be a victim of the self-interest it had promoted
- Nineveh's aristocracy will "sleep"
- People will be scattered
- Wounds will not heal; injuries will be fatal
- People will rejoice – all those who have felt their cruelty
The book does not end on a happy note, but rather with a question: Who has not felt your endless cruelty? Though addressed to Assyria, it is a timeless query. The book of Nahum affirms that atrocities of nation against nation will have consequences, and he does not mince words in getting his message out. His images are stark, painful, and filled with horror. Justice is sometimes ugly, yet those who have suffered find release. In his writings, Nahum affirms divine justice. He believes God will act. Nahum does not lead the battle cry; he simply affirms this as the fact. The value of his message might be in doing more work to prevent the atrocities rather than trying to deal with their aftermath.
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Gaebelein, Frank. "Nahum." Expositor's Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1985.
Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson. Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.
Smith, Ralph. "Micah-Malachi." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1984.