Nahum — Declaration of Doom against the Assyrian Empire
Written sometime between Jonah’s visit to Ninevah and its destruction by the Babylonians, the prophecy of Nahum declares God’s impending judgment against the capital of the Assyrian Empire. According to Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps & Charts, the prophecy can easily be divided into three parts, corresponding to the chapters of this Old Testament book:
- the decree of Ninevah’s destruction
- the description of Ninevah’s destruction
- why Ninevah deserved its destruction [p. 266].
We know nothing about its author beyond what is written in the book’s opening line: “…The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite” (Nah. 1:1). Archaeologists and historians are not even sure where the city of Elkosh might have been, although they suspect it was somewhere in the territory of Judah, since that was a focus of the prophet’s attention.
Nahum Chapter 1
Nahum begins his message by calling it, “The burden against Nineveh” (Nah. 1:1). According to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, the Hebrew word, massa, can be translated as “load, burden, tribute, or delight,” when used in the context of something that can be carried by man or beast. In the prophetic sense, the word refers to an “utterance,” or an “oracle” given by God.
Since the prophecy was delivered both to the unbelieving nation of Assyria and apostate Judah, Nahum dedicated the first several lines of his message to describe YHWH’s character:
- “God is jealous, and the LORD avenges;” He’s furious and will take vengeance on His enemies (v. 2). He takes care of what belongs to Him and won’t leave unpunished anyone who touches His possessions.
- “The LORD is slow to anger” (3). He sent the reluctant prophet Jonah to warn the city of Ninevah once before, and He forgave their many sins when they repented at that time.
- However, He “will not at all acquit the wicked.” When men or nations continue to sin, eventually they will get what they deserve.
Verses 3-6 describe YHWH’s awesome authority and power over the earth and its elements:
- “His path is in the whirlwind and storm, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet” (Nah. 1:3, HCSB). Born and raised in the heart of “Tornado Alley,” I am fascinated to think of God walking in the midst of a mighty twister, unaffected by the swirling clouds or the destructive power unleashed from them. He tells them where to go and what to do!
- YHWH also has the power to dry up the rivers and the seas—withholding the rain or snows that water the fields and meadows [a fact this nation would do well to remember in our time of record drought] (v. 4).
- Our God causes earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and rock slides (5-6).
The prophet asks, with powers like these, “Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger?”
For those who trust in Him, YHWH is good, “A stronghold in the day of trouble” (7). But those who oppose Him will find God’s anger like “an overflowing flood” bringing complete destruction and darkness for His enemies (8). No conspiracy against the Lord can possibly succeed; “they will be consumed like dry stubble” (Nah. 1:10, NIV).
Next Nahum, whose name means “comfort,” or “consolation,” offers this encouragement to his people: Although there were many Assyrians, and they seemed to live in safety, yet God was going to cut them down (v. 12). Judah, on the other hand, had been afflicted by the Assyrians, but would be no longer, “For now I will break off his yoke from you, and burst your bonds apart” (13). The Lord intended to wipe out the name and the idols of Assyria permanently (14).
The chapter concludes with this popular word of hope for the people of God:
Look, there on the mountains,
the feet of one who brings good news,
who proclaims peace!
Celebrate your festivals, O Judah,
and fulfill your vows.
No more will the wicked invade you;
they will be completely destroyed. (Nahum 1:15, NIV)
The first three lines of this verse were put to music in a worship chorus entitled, “Our God Reigns,” in 1974 by Leonard E. Smith. You can hear a church choir sing this song and see the lyrics at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XSSEO8Kv-k0.
Nahum Chapter 2
The opening lines of this next chapter warn the Assyrians that someone is coming to scatter them, so they should strengthen their defenses against the invaders (Nah. 2:1). Although they had emptied out Israel, God planned to restore His people (v. 2). Yet, no matter how they prepared for battle, the defenders of Ninevah would not be able to thwart their attackers (3-5).
In the New International Version, Nahum 2:6 says, “The river gates are thrown open and the palace collapses.” Nahum 1:8 foretold that God would defeat His enemies “with an overwhelming flood.” Adam Clarke’s Commentary tells us that Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described how this prophecy played out during the Babylonian invasion of Ninevah, when the Euphrates River flattened several hundred feet of the city wall. The king of Assyria, believing this to be a fulfillment of the oracle against him, gathered his household together and burned the palace down around them, rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.
As YHWH decreed, the rest of Ninevah was carried away captive, moaning like doves and beating their breasts (Nah. 2:7). Meanwhile, the Babylonian invaders carried off spoils of silver, gold, and every other desirable treasure the Ninevites had stored up like pools of water (vv. 8-9). The great city was left “empty, desolate, and waste” with no inhabitants (10).
God compared the city to the lair of fearless lions, whose caves were filled with prey (11-12). Yet when the promised invasion came, the hearts of the Assyrians would melt, their knees would shake, and their faces would drain of color (10). YHWH Sabaoth would burn their colorful chariots, cut down their young lions and stop them from hunting any more prey (13).
Nahum Chapter 3
“Woe to the bloody city!” Nahum cried (Nah. 3:1). He said it was full of lies, robbery, violence and warfare (vv. 1-2). Because of the seduction and sorcery of Assyria, God intended to expose the capital city like a disgraced prostitute and cover its streets with corpses of those slain in battle (3-6). So complete would be the city’s destruction, that people would flee in horror, declaring, “Ninevah is laid waste!” with no one to bemoan its loss (7).
Referring to the city of Thebes, which was captured in 663 B.C. by the Assyrians [Nelson’s Complete Book, p. 264], verse 8 asks of Ninevah, “Are you better than No Amon that was situated by the River…?” This capital of ancient Egypt was surrounded by water—with the Nile on the west and the Red Sea in the east—and reinforced by the armies of Ethiopia, Egypt, Put and Libya (9). “Yet she was carried away,” and her children were brutally slaughtered by the Assyrians (10). How could Ninevah expect to be treated any differently?
God compared Assyria’s strongholds to fig trees full of ripened fruit, just waiting to be shaken into the open mouths of those who would devour them (12). The defenders of Ninevah would be no more effective against their invaders than women; their gates would be burned and stand wide open (13). No amount of reinforcement of the city walls could keep the Assyrians safe, since God had determined their destruction (14). Though Ninevah multiplied warriors and financiers like locusts, they would all scatter without a trace in face of the enemy (15-17).
The chapter ends with this dirge directed toward the ruler of Ninevah:
Your shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria;
Your nobles rest in the dust.
Your people are scattered on the mountains,
And no one gathers them.
Your injury has no healing,
Your wound is severe… (18-19).
Nahum assured his audience that everyone who had ever suffered at the hands of the Assyrians would celebrate the city’s fall.
Although God is “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness”—even extending His mercy to pagan nations—there is a limit to His kindness, on both a national and individual scale. If we are informed of our sin and do not repent, or if we change our ways for a season but not for good, eventually His grace toward us will run out.
We mustn’t be like Assyria, living for our own pleasure and enrichment at the expense of others. We can’t reject the warnings of God and continue to prosper. Eventually judgment does come for the hard-hearted. All the harm we do to others will fall back on us.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.