Nahum: The Lord’s Vengeance on Nineveh
Minor Prophets Series #8
Nahum’s name means “comfort” or “consolation.” But when you read his prophecy you do not feel very comforted because it is a prophecy of the Lord’s vengeance. But these words of promised destruction and devastation are words of comfort to the Lord’s people, for they are directed against one of the most bloodthirsty and cruel civilizations ever known; the Assyrian empire and its capital city of Nineveh. When such an oppressive enemy is dealt with, then those who have suffered do find relief and comfort when the enemy falls.
“The oracle of Ninevah. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.” (NAHUM 1:1). Ninevah had a policy of world conquest and domination. A part of their plans included God’s chosen people, Israel and Judah. The Scriptures relate to us how both Israel and Judah fell away from God. Of the two, Judah was the most faithful and so lasted longer than her northern brethren in Israel.
Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.) was the first Assyrian king to raid into Israel and deported some as slaves back to Assyria.
Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) began to lay siege to Samaria, the capital city of apostate Israel, but died before the city fell.
Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) completed the siege of Samaria which fell to him and Israel ceased to exist as a nation and was deported into captivity by Assyria. This was in accordance with the prophetic warnings that had been given to her through the many prophets God had sent to her urging her to repent, but to whom she refused to listen.
Sennecherib (705-681 B.C.) This Assyrian monarch invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem. Hezekiah, the faithful king of Judah, prayed for deliverance and received it. Sennecherib was murdered by two of his sons who were in turn driven out by another son who became king.
Esarhaddon (681-668 B.C.)
Ashurbanipal (668-625 B.C.). His campaign reached into Egypt and resulted in the destruction of the Egyptian city of Thebes (referred to as No-amon in Nahum). Said to be extremely cruel.
Assur-etil-ilani (625-620 B.C.)
Esarhaddon III (620-612 B.C.) Also known as Sin-shar-ishkeen, this king has the distinction of being in power when Nahum’s predicted destruction of Nineveh occurs. When Nineveh was besieged by the Medes and the Chaldeans, he gathered his wives and children and wealth into his palace and burned it down, dying in the flames.
(Much of the above background material was gleaned from A Commentary on the Minor Prophets by Homer Hailey.)
Regarding the extreme cruelty of Assyria, their own records bragging of their victories is proof enough. Far from trying to cover their brutality, they actually gloried in it. Their monuments and histories brag about how “space failed for corpses” and about “how unsparing a destroyer is Assyria’s goddess Ishtar.” They brag about how high the pyramids of human heads were which they built from their conquered foes and how they burned cities and impaled human beings and cut off hands and flayed bodies and so forth. Nahum announces that the time for divine judgment has arrived. Such words of destruction indeed would be words of comfort to a world so tormented by Assyrian cruelty. Perhaps, too, we can better understand Jonah’s hesitancy to take the Lord’s warning to Nineveh a century before. He did not want Nineveh to repent. He wanted it to be destroyed. He felt it would be much better that way, the problem was that it had not been his decision to make.
THE LORD IS SLOW TO ANGER AND GREAT IN POWER
“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful…the Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” (NAHUM 1:3,4). The date of Nahum’s prophecy is between 663 and 612 B.C. We know this from the historical information in the book showing that Thebes had already fallen (663) but that Nineveh had not yet fallen (612). Most put the writing around 630 B.C. or later.
The Lord is characterized as jealous and avenging and wrathful. This is not a side of God that many care to think about or even admit that exists. I am afraid that many of us today pretend the same thing apostate Israel did during these times; that either God will not or cannot execute judgment on wicked nations. But just because the Lord is slow to anger does not mean that He lacks the power or will to act. Israel found out the hard way. So did Assyria.
Speaking of being slow to anger, it had been a century since Jonah had preached to Nineveh and the city had repented. Evidently, the repentance had been short-lived, though there is some archaeological evidence of a brief encounter with monotheism on the part of Nineveh about Jonah’s time. After a century of extreme cruelty and wickedness, God’s slowness to anger was running out. Nahum points out that when God acts, none can stop Him (1:6).
Even in the midst of this oracle of judgment, there is a reminder that God is good and that He is a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him. God’s severity does not diminish from His goodness, nor does His goodness diminish from His severity. He is not “either/or” but He is both. “Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise, you, also will be cut off.” (ROMANS 11:22, cf. 2:2-11).
The words of comfort to the people of Judah are found in the final verse of the first chapter: “Behold…Celebrate your feasts, O Judah; Pay your vows. For never again will the wicked one (Assyria) pass through you; he will be cut off completely.” (NAHUM 1:15).
THE FALL OF NINEVEH
“And it will come about that all who see you will shrink away from you and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her?’ Where will I seek comforters for you?” (NAHUM 3:7). Nineveh is to be utterly destroyed. The Lord says that He will find none to mourn her passing. Chapter two begins with the warning that Nineveh’s destroyer is coming and describes the defensive preparations Nineveh attempts (2:1,2). The approaching army has their shields colored red and it soldiers are dressed in scarlet. This seems to identify the Chaldeans as the ones who would destroy Nineveh, whose soldiers indeed were dressed in red (see Ezekiel 23:14). The plunder and destruction of the cruel, once proud city is then vividly described throughout the remainder of the book.
An important point to be made here is the fruitlessness of any attempt to thwart divine judgment. The Lord challenges Nineveh to man the fortress and watch the road and to summon all your strength. None of it will matter. Men cannot withstand God and prevail. Not Assyria. Not Babylon. Not Rome. And not even our own nation should we continue to follow the course away from God.
All of the events prophesied in this book came to pass. In 612 B.C. Nineveh fell to Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans. Judah survived intact until it, too, was carried away into captivity by Babylon (the Chaldeans). Judah would suffer captivity, and a remnant of both Judah and Israel would repent and return to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The nation would be reborn, because God was not finished with them yet. Then, six centuries after the fall of Assyria, and in accordance with God’s timetable, the Messiah would come, born in Bethlehem, of the tribe of Judah. Not even powerful, wicked Assyria could thwart God’s plan. Today, the ancient city is barely discernible. The place where it once stood consists of two mounds of earth. Indeed its destruction was complete and final. Unlike with Judah, there would be no rebirth for Nineveh. “Whatever you devise against the Lord, He will make a complete end of it. Distress will not rise up twice.” (NAHUM 1:9).
By Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 4.8; August 1997