May-May was the 8th grader I idolized. A grade ahead of us, she was popular and pretty, but her appeal went beyond these things for me. When I was odd-girl-out in a misunderstanding among seventh grade friends, May-May got wind of it and took me in. She couldn’t mend the division, but she bolstered me through its awkward moments–made room at her table, hung out while we waited for rides home. I’ve never forgotten.
Feeling supported is a wonderful thing. This is a tiny drop of what God does by the ocean full for his people when he predicts the fall of Ninevah, and then brings it about within just a few years. The judgment of this ancient bully of the known world would have been big news in its day, but especially for God’s people who had been conquered and carted off by them (Israel) and oppressed (Judah).
Recording the story documents God’s support for his people. It’s good to feel loved by the one who’s got our back. But it also reminds me that while God is good and compassionate, his judgment of the wicked is real and so is his wrath.
Jonah spoke to Ninevah of their need to repent 100 years before Nahum’s day, and everyone–from the king down–did repent. They all fasted and put on sackcloth, even putting it on their animals so they would be spared, and the destruction God threatened was averted, (for the story of Jonah and his trip to Ninevah, see December 14).
But 100 years later, this capital of the Assyrian kingdom has forgotten its sackcloth repentance and the new leaf it turned. Nahum comes along and basically says, “Your doom will be soon and is well deserved. This is how it will go down.” His book addressed the Assyrian king and his people and tells the story of Ninevah’s total destruction. I wonder if they’d repented as they had before, would God have relented again?
It’s a good reminder, that along with the deep pockets of God’s mercy and forgiveness for his people and their enemies, there comes a time when his judgment comes. When people are treated like rubble, when getting ahead in life matters more than another’s literal head, when kings’ ruthless tortures are chiseled in stones as trophies of their legacies, well, God says he’s going to put a stop to that, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/nahum-3/).
God’s not a pushover, soft on sin. His holiness demands that every sin be paid for. Those who believe in Jesus’ death as payment for their sins are covered, but those who don’t, aren’t. God gives all nations and all people plenty of chances to repent and believe because he’s compassionate and merciful. But God’s justice demands they suffer the consequences if they choose not to. Because this is God’s world and he’s in charge, kingdoms built on tyranny and cruelty will eventually fall. This has been shown again and again in the writing of the Bible prophets and in the history that backs them up.
Nahum begins his book by telling his readers–the Ninevites and the Judahites–what God is like in a series of “this and that” comparisons. Since it mostly addresses Ninevah, it makes sense that he wants to clue them in on the God who pronounces their judgment, since they seem to have forgotten who he is.
The God who judges them:
God is patient and punishes.
“The Lord takes vengeance on his foes
and maintains his wrath against his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished,” Na 1:2-3.
While God’s anger takes a long time coming, he doesn’t delay it forever. He acts, he judges, and he punishes the unrepentant for their sin. His offer of faith in his Son is open to all who want it, but those who don’t aren’t left undisturbed–they’re condemned.
God’s call to repent and believe is good news, unless one chooses not to answer him. His unanswered call becomes the reason for punishment. Nahum says that God “will not leave the guilty unpunished,” which elsewhere is translated “he will not acquit the wicked,” Na 1:3, NKJV.
God is present and powerful.
“The mountains quake before him,
and the hills melt away.
The earth trembles at his presence,
the world and all who live in it.
Who can withstand his indignation?
Who can endure his fierce anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire;
the rocks are shattered before him,” Na 1:5-6.
If even the mountains shake, the earth trembles, and rocks are shattered before the Lord, what chance do people have who stand before him, willfully hanging onto sin? If someone’s not yet trusted God, maybe awe is where they’d need to begin in relationship with him, Ps 119:120.
He’s not a God off somewhere else, involved and distracted with another world. He’s present on earth; he’s among his people; he watches over the affairs of this world and directs the events and rulers of nations, (2 Sa 22:48; Jb 36:31; Ps 79:10; Ps 33:10; Is 33:3).
God is a refuge and a relentless pursuer.
“The Lord is good,
a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him,
but with an overwhelming flood
he will make an end of Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into darkness,” Na 1:7-8.
Nahum wants to make it clear that God is good, and that he knows who trusts him. These are the folks he takes care of and protects. He’s their refuge, their strong tower, their fortress. But the Ninevites don’t experience him this way. To them, he’s an overwhelming flood, a relentless pursuer among them. He says, “I will prepare your grave, for you are vile.” Na 1:14.
God is merciful and just.
God’s great mercy is well documented in his word. David asked God to remember his “great mercy and love, for they are from of old.” Ps 25:6. Isaiah sums up God’s heart that longs to be merciful, “For the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” Is 30:18.
God desires to save all people, not judge them, “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone…Repent and live!” He leaves the choice of turning to him up to us. It’s a choice he urges us to make, reminding us that we will be received because “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Js 2:13; Ez 18:32.
But God’s mercy has boundaries against willful sin. God puts up with a lot, but not with a stubborn, unrepentant heart. He said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” implying some don’t get any. Ex 33:19. God will either break a hard heart to bring it to himself, or if it won’t come, he brings it ultimately to judgment. God’s holy justice requires it.
For those who choose him, it still takes a lot of jackhammering to make a dent. All hearts are hard in one way or another against God before he works in them, committed to self rather than to him. The process of softening a hard heart hurts quite a bit, but it’s an exquisite sort of pain. “It hurts like heaven,” Pastor Eric has said. It’s one that ultimately brings righteousness and peace, though to tell the truth, I think the process never really ends. At least, not until we’re completely swallowed up by Love in heaven, He 12:11.
Paul says that stubborn, unrepentant hearts store up God’s wrath against themselves for the day when his righteous judgment comes, and that he repays each person “‘according to what they have done,'” Ro 2:5-6. These are hard words, ones I’d like to avoid. I’ll take the exquisite jackhammer of God’s discipline any day to the wrath of God in that day.
The rest of Nahum’s book is about the judgment ahead for Ninevah and why it’s coming.
The judgment ahead:
Nahum taunts Ninevah about getting ready. He says for them to draw water for the siege and to strengthen their defenses. He says to build with clay and mortar, repairing brickwork. But then he says it won’t do any good. The fire will devour them and the sword will cut them down and consume them like grasshoppers, Na 3:14-15.
Ninevah has many allies, but they’ll be cut off from them. Its soldiers will be as weak as women, and their gates will be as good as wide open. God will destroy all their idols in their temples. The invaders will come in with their chariots that flash and “storm through the streets.” Fire will consume the city and burn up her own chariots, Na 1:12-14; 2:3-4, 13; 3:13.
Though their enemies of Babylon, Medea, Persia and Arabia come in and actually do the devastation, God says he’s the one who’s behind them, the one who fights against Nineveh, Na 2:13 (NIV Study Bible notes).
It’s not clear whether a natural flood disaster swept in because of heavy rains and collapsed the city’s 100 foot high wall and the king’s palace, or if this was orchestrated by the invaders damming up the nearby river and then releasing it. Regardless of what caused it, a flood of water came in and made a way into the city, just as God said, Na 1:6-8; 2:13, (NIV Study Bible notes; also http://enduring word.com/bible-commentary/nahum-1/)
Their plunder from countless invasions of other nations is piled up in Ninevah’s storerooms, “the supply is endless,” but it will all be taken, Na 2:9-10. “She is pillaged, plundered, stripped! Hearts melt, knees give way, bodies tremble, every face grows pale,” Na 2:10.
The lion was the symbol for Assyria. It’s depicted in their wall murals. Many lion sculptures have been found in the city’s ruins. Nahum says their lions’ den will be destroyed, the “lairs” they filled with the prey they killed. Nineveh will no longer be their den of destruction, Na 2:11-12 (enduring word).
“I am against you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
‘I will burn up your chariots in smoke,
and the sword will devour your young lions.
I will leave you no prey on the earth,” Na 2:13.
What becomes of their people? Those who aren’t killed will be “scattered to the mountains with no one to gather them.” Many will be rounded up for exile. Prostitutes will beat their breasts. Messengers from other nations will disperse. Though their own merchants are many, they’ll strip the land for what they can get and leave. Guards and officials will do the same. Great men are chained; shepherds sleep; nobles die. History tells us the king was burned alive, Na 3:10, 16-18, (NIV Study Bible notes).
The reason for judgment:
Nahum says Ninevah is a “city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!” There are “piles of dead, bodies without number” lying around, so many that people trip over them as they go about the city, Na 3:1-3.
The people are involved in sorcery and witchcraft, and they lead other nations into doing the same thing. A nearby valley full of tablets of incantations has been found and excavated. They lead other nations in prostitution, too, Na 3:4 (http://enduring word.com/bible-commentary/nahum-3/).
The city was known for its bloody massacres of the leaders of conquered nations. It would behead, burn, or pin them with spears to walls alive where they died in agony. They were heartless and ruthless, stacking up dead bodies like piles of wood by the gates of cities they defeated, (enduring word).
Shalmaneser III bragged about building a pyramid of heads outside a conquered city. Some kings had their tortures carved in words in stone, some of which were flaying the bodies of the dead and using human skin to cover pillars and walls. They also made pillars out of corpses, (enduring word).
Throughout their culture, there was a failure to honor human dignity. They were known to cut off fingers and toes, ears and noses, and put out eyes. One inscription said, “I made one pillar of the living and another of heads. I bound their heads to posts ’round about the city.” Babies were deliberately thrown down and killed in the streets, Na 3:10, (enduring word).
A secular source says another Assyrian king bragged that he put a dog chain on a captured king and put him in a kennel at Ninevah’s eastern gate. Compared to the way others were tortured, this would have been mild, (NIV Study Bible notes).
The last words of Nahum say that everyone who hears of Ninevah’s fall will rejoice because everyone has felt their cruelty:
“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?” Na 3:19.
But God’s people would especially rejoice. Assyria had conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and carried its people into captivity. It had attacked Judah, the southern kingdom, too, and made them a vassal nation that had to pay tribute. They were powerful enemies. It would have felt vindicating and satisfying to read how God would humble this great and powerful nation. God even tells them to celebrate its fall, Na 1:15.
Ninevah was destroyed so completely that even though it was “60 miles in compass,” had walls 100 feet high and a moat 150 feet wide surrounding it, there was nothing left of it except for dust until it was discovered in the mid 1800’s by an archeologist. Even today, there is no city there, only the ongoing excavations of two mounds (enduring word; http://britannica.com/place/Nineceh-ancient-city-Iraq).
God brought the destruction he said he would.
The judgment still to come:
Zooming out from the people in that day, it’s instructive to read Nahum in our day because we see that what God says goes. His word can be depended upon. God foretold the end of this great city and it’s still devastated, even today. Nothing is left but ruins.
God’s word is reliable and true. We can depend on it because God himself backs it, the one who makes the mountains shake and the earth tremble. He’s the one with whom we have to do. He’s the one who is slow to anger, but who also avenges with fury Na 1:2-3.
God says there’s judgment still to come, at the end of time. I don’t know much about what it will be like, but I believe it’s coming. God’s judgment of sin gives his love weight and teeth. It’s a protection that lets love thrive. If “anything goes” and no one is restrained, then anarchy reigns and evil prevails and love becomes sentimental good wishes, not something that can survive and thrive.
It’s because of God’s great love that he must judge.
“The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him,” Na 1:7.
It’s not too late to find refuge in him.
This psalm brings tears. You are good, and you remind us of your goodnesses. The long history of goodness to your people despite their faithlessness is given here, from Egypt to the promised land. And there are your reminders of your goodness to us today: you remember our need, you free us, you feed us.
Your love that endures forever is hugely comforting, particularly after reading Revelation (which I’ve skipped commenting on here). The psalmist writes, “His love endures forever,” after every line. You must know that we need to be reminded over and over of your love, so your psalmist repeated it 26 times.
“To the One who remembered us in our low estate,
His love endures forever.
and freed us from our enemies,
His love endures forever.
and who gives food to every creature,
His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven.
His love endures forever,”
My take away today is God as my refuge in times of trouble. Because he remembered my “low estate,” my need, he sent the Son to free me from the enemy. He’s my safe place, the fortress, the harbor–a place of calm and peace when storms rise. Thank you for your Son, my Savior, my safe place from the judgment to come.
Thank you, God,
for teaching me what you’re like,
for letting me rest in your presence,
for your patience and delight,
for not letting bad guys get off,
for love with chops,
for love that never stops.
You are my refuge.