Nahum and the promise of God’s justice

ninevahWhen’s the last time you heard a sermon preached about the book of Nahum?

It isn’t too surprising that Nahum isn’t exactly a regularly-occurring character in most sermons and Bible studies. For one thing, the book of Nahum is extremely short—it’s only three chapters long. But more challenging than its brevity is its subject matter: the book of Nahum is essentially a prophetic poem predicting destruction for the wicked Assyrian capital city of Ninevah.

The book of Nahum describes in vivid and sometime disturbing detail the fate of a mighty empire whose cruelty and mistreatment of its subjects was legendary. It’s a cry to God to administer justice to a powerful enemy that Israel cannot defeat or escape on her own:

O king of Assyria, your shepherds [c] slumber;
your nobles lie down to rest.
Your people are scattered on the mountains
with no one to gather them.

Nothing can heal your wound;
your injury is fatal.
Everyone who hears the news about you
claps his hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
your endless cruelty?

It makes for an interesting read—but how could anyone today relate to any of this?

In his book A History of Prophecy in Israel, Joseph Blenkinsopp suggests that to really understand the spiritual impact of the book of Nahum, we have to remember what this prophecy meant to its original audience:

The tone of these poems will not easily find sympathetic resonance in the mind of the modern reader, or at least the modern reader who has not suffered under such conditions as the Assyrians imposed on their subject provinces. But it may help to recall that what was at stake for the poet and his audience was the reality of divine power and the possibility of justice in the world of international affairs. (p. 123)

Nahum’s prophecy, then, was a promise that Israel’s oppressor would not escape God’s justice—and beyond that, it’s a reminder for all readers that God takes note of His people’s suffering, and that when God acts, not even the most powerful human forces in the world can stand against Him.

That’s a message that might not resonate strongly with many Western Christians today; few of us have experienced the brutality that Israel did under Assyrian conquest. But for brothers and sisters in the persecuted church around the globe, Nahum’s assurance that God is ultimately in control of human politics and empires is a powerful one.

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