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I know I’ve joked before about preaching in these various series that we do here at Blythwood, and ok so I know Pastor Bill doesn’t do this purposefully when I have looked at the various passages or topics that we’ve looked at and gone “Now why is it that this one had to fall on my particular Sunday.” I must admit I kind of had the same thought when I first looked at Nahum. There’s none of the “let justice roll like waters, righteousness like an ever flowing stream” of Amos. Or the “I desire mercy not sacrifice” of Hosea, or even the “Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,” quote from Jonah. God was talking about the great city of Nineveh – the same city which God is concerned with as he speaks through the prophet Nahum. It’s not good news for Nineveh. Here we have things like “A shatterer has come up against you, the shields of his warriors are red, his soldiers are clothed in crimson, the chariots race madly through the streets, they rush to and fro through the squares, their appearance is like torches, they dart like lightning.” Or “See I am against you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions.” And yet the name Nahum means compassion, or comfort. Let us take a look at our text this morning and see what the Lord had to say to the people who heard and read the prophet Nahum, and see what words of compassion God might have to say to us from this book this morning. Let us pray…
When is the last time you heard a sermon on Nahum? We don’t hear a lot about it in church. In churches that use lectionaries, it’s not included. One writer describes how some interpreters just write off Nahum “because it seems to be a vengeful, nationalistic expression of Israel’s triumph over an enemy. It is the work of a false prophet, says another. Ethically and theologically it is deficient, writes another.” If we look at the book of Nahum as a book about human beings and the various things that human beings feel, we do it a disservice. The book is about the nature of God, and addresses the question of “What is the divine response to the problem of evil?” One that was very cogent in Nahum’s day, one that is very cogent in our day. So just what was the situation for the prophet Nahum and those who heard him.
It is thought that Nahum was written in the 7th century BC. At this time the Assyrian Empire was in the ascendency. Its capital was Nineveh – near Mosul in modern day Iraq. The Assyrians had swept into the northern kingdom of Israel a century before. When empires in the ancient near east took over territory, it was not about capturing hearts and minds. One writer describes it like this – “Assyrian royal inscriptions attest not only to the army’s facility with iron weapons and siege technology, but also to its systematic treatment of captives: the slaughter of tens of thousands; the deportation of large population groups (some to slave labour camps); and the selective blinding, flaying, and impalement of enemies – both alive and dead.” At the time of the prophet Nahum, Northern Israel had already suffered this fate. Judah was still free but serving as a vassal state for the Assyrians.
So this is the audience Nahum is addressing. While we read in v1 that the book is an oracle concerning Nineveh – and oracle here means a word of warning to a foreign power, we read these in books like Amos and Isaiah though Nahum is the only book where the whole thing is an oracle – the prophet’s message is really to the people of Judah living under Assyrian rule, and by extension to us. What does the prophet have to say to them?
I said earlier that this book is primarily about God – who God is and what the divine response to evil is. Nahum starts in v2 two with “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.” That’s a lot of vengeance, and some jealousy too.
A Vengeful Jealous God?
What are we to make of this? How should we talk about this? It’s important that we get this right, because people will ask. Oprah Winfrey tells a story why she stopped going to church regularly. “The church I went to had a really charismatic pastor—you had to show up early to get a seat—and I remember sitting there one Sunday while he was preaching about how ‘the Lord thy God is a jealous God, the Lord thy God will punish you for your sins.’ I looked around and thought, ‘Why would God be jealous? What does that even mean?’ What we must not do is put our own human ideas of jealousy and vengeance on God. Here’s one description of God’s jealousy – “The God of the Bible is throughout its pages a jealous God, because he has made for himself a people to serve his purpose; and he wills that the people neither stray from his purpose and devotion to him nor be deterred by any enemy from their covenant calling. The imagery of God’s ‘jealousy’ is of his zealous will driving forward toward his goal of salvation.” This is not some pop song version of jealousy. The same thing with vengeance. We must never put our own ideas of vengeance on God, neither must we put our own ideas about justice or mercy on God. Let what we think about these things come from God friends. I’ve said in the past that at times I’ve been all too happy to let vengeance be God’s and wait patiently for the glee that would surely come when God’s vengeance came down. Is this what vengeance is all about when God says that it is his? The idea of vengeance in the Bible is about redress – it is about making things right. For people it was about not exacting more of a penalty than that which you had lost. “An eye for an eye” was to make sure that it wasn’t “A head for an eye.”
This is what this book is all about. It’s not a nationalistic “Israelites good Assyrians bad” type of thing. It’s about people acting as enemies of God. People acting in direct opposition to the will of God – what God wills for humanity, how God wills for humanity to live. It’s about the lengths to which God is willing to go to redress evil. How did the Assyrians show themselves to be enemies of God? Look at Nah 3:1 – “Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty – no end to the plunder!” Nah 3:4 “Because of the countless debaucheries of the prostitute, gracefully alluring, mistress of sorcery, who enslaves nations though her debaucheries, and peoples through her sorcery, I am against you, says the Lord of hosts…” God will not let evil go unanswered.
A Patient Compassionate God
This is not of course the only side to God – let’s look back at Nah 1:3 – “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.” This is reminiscent of God’s self-description (and by far my favourite description of God in scripture) to Moses in Exodus 34: 6-7 “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty…” Nahum is focussed on what he is focussed on – the judgement that is about to be visited on Nineveh. It’s almost like the flip side of what is presented in Jonah, where forgiveness is offered, much to Jonah’s chagrin. I knew you were a compassionate God, he says, this is why I didn’t want to come here in the first place. These are their enemies after all.
And yet even here in the middle of this talk about God’s vengeance, Nahum reminds us that God is patient. “The Lord is slow to anger, but great in power,” we read in verse 3. Patience – longsuffering – it’s one of the attributes of God. It’s one we need God to instill in us, especially when we look at injustice, at suffering. Think of our world today. It’s not hard to say along with the martyrs in Rev 6 “Sovereign Lord Holy and True, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” It had been decades for the Israelites living under Assyrian power. “No kidding the Lord is slow to anger,” they must have been saying.
What Do You Think…
He is also good. In v7 we read “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him…” What a wonderful promise! The question for us becomes, do we get behind this God of grace, of mercy, of patience, of faithfulness, of justice as we read him about in these 12 books? Verse 9 asks the question “Why do you plot against the Lord?” The Hebrew word for “plot” here can also mean imagine, or think. It could also be translated “What do you people think of Yahweh?” What do you think of him? Do we recognize his sovereignty, his hand operative in all things? Do we trust Him? Or do we put our trust in chariots and horses? Do we seek to love the things that he loves, to follow his will for our lives, to love him with heart soul mind and strength and neighbour as ourselves, or do we seek personal gain? What do we think of this Lord.
No matter where we stand on it, the Lord will act. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers. God’s saving actions, God’s saving plan will not be thwarted by humanity. How could our brothers and sisters today who face persecution, who face death, go on? How could our brothers and sisters in the past who have faced persecution, who faced death for the name of Jesus have gone on without clinging to this great promise? God is jealous alright – God has made for himself a people to serve his purposes – his good purposes – and he will not see his salvation plan for the world thwarted. “Though they are at full strength and many,” he promises in v12, “they will be cut off and pass away. Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more.” Verse 13 – “And now I will break off this yoke from you, and snap the bonds that bind you.” God will act. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes in 612 BC.
There is an image of God as Divine Warrior that runs throughout scripture, from the creation account where see God overcoming chaos, through the Exodus where Moses tells the Israelites as they’re being pursued by Pharaoh’s army “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still”, to God going promising to go ahead of the Israelites into the promised land in Joshua. The same imagery is used here in descriptions of God being in the whirlwind and storm, making a full end of his adversaries, pursuing his enemies into darkness. The main message is that trust in God brings victory.
Trust in God. Trust in good news. Verse 15 – “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, fulfill your vows, for never again shall the wicked invade you; they are utterly cut off.” Good news! One who proclaims peace. It would not be a lasting peace, unfortunately. The Babylonian empire would soon be knocking at the gates of Jerusalem. Israel would live under foreign powers, save for a brief time in the 2nd century BC, right up until the time of the one who came to proclaim good news, the one who came to create peace.
Our Divine Warrior
Christ fought for us friends. He didn’t do it in the way many were expecting him to do it. He doesn’t today in the way we sometimes expect him to. He didn’t fight for us with sword. He told Peter “No more of this!” when the disciple struck with the sword in the garden. He didn’t come into town riding on a war horse. He came on a humble donkey. When God’s wrath and mercy met in some mysterious way on the cross, Christ showed us that his fight wasn’t against people but against the rulers and authorities that Paul tells us in Colossians Christ came to disarm. They’re not fully disarmed – we’re all too painfully aware of this aren’t we? But the day is coming that Christ described when - “They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” The day is coming when a rider on a white horse will appear and his name is Faithful and True and evil will be done away with and things will be put to rights for once and for all and we will sing a new victory song to God! We don’t know what that’s going to look like precisely and we leave it up to God – as He told Moses “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will show compassion on whom I show compassion.” We don’t know what it will look like, but we do know that God is good.
We need to be reminded of this don’t we? We need Nahum in the canon. We need to preach about it, teach about it. We need to when we look at our world. When we look at what people do to each other. We need to hold onto this invitation to “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good news.” Our fight isn’t against people. It’s against powers and principalities. We’re invited by Paul to put on the armour of God. What does this mean in terms of how we view our enemies? Who are our enemies? How do we define enemy? As one who wishes to harm us? Do we defend ourselves? Do we seek to harm them back? What does this mean in terms of groups like ISIS who are doing harm to our Christian brothers and sisters? What does this mean when people are being thrown off boats in the middle of the Mediterranean for following Christ? We’re not going to answer these questions this morning, but I do hope they spark some discussion.
There are two things I want to close with as we finish this morning. The first is the necessity to take a serious look at Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies. We read in Matt 5:43-44 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” What does it mean for us to love our enemies, to bless those who seek to harm us? I think this calls for a continual discernment and a longing for God to work this kind of love in and through us. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Jim Elliot and the band of missionaries who were with him in Ecuador. In the early 50’s this group were seeking to minister among the native Quechua people there, particularly a tribe known as the Huaorani. On January 8th 1956, Elliot along with four other missionaries and their pilot were attacked and killed by a group of Huaorani. The thing is they had guns in their camp and never used them. Not even to fire off a few warning shots. It’s something I’ve always had difficulty getting my mind around. Their deaths sowed the seeds of years of making God known among this tribe, including Jim Elliot’s widow Elisabeth going to live and serve among this tribe which had killed her husband. Is this what we are called to do? Is this who we are called to be?
Finally, let us accept the invitation found at the end of our passage – “Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, fulfill your vows, for never again shall the wicked invade you; they are utterly cut off.” There were three major pilgrimage festivals for which the people of Nahum’s day went up to Jerusalem – the festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Booths. All of them celebrated God’s great acts – the deliverance from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, and the tents in which they lived for 40 years in the wilderness. To us I say “Celebrate your festivals, O church.” While we await the day when God makes everything right, let us proclaim and enact together God’s saving, providing, peace bringing acts. Let us gather together to sing of, pray to, talk about the one who reigns. Let us gather around his table to remember the place where wrath and mercy meet, to enact pray for me and our family on a weekly basis. That’s part of what it means to love kindness.
A number of years ago someone came up with an idea that got turned into a way to sell christianized junk. Many of you will remember it—W. W. J. D.—what would Jesus do? Our world does not need any more junk; I maintain, of course, that the handy-dandy fridge magnet is entirely useful and not to be confused with junk. But the idea behind the W. W. J. D. campaign was quite sound, I think. The reason I say that is the call of Jesus, the call of our Lord, is to be a follower, a disciple, a learner, in other words Jesus calls us to take note of the sort of things he does, of his unswerving commitment to the justice of God, of his profound love of kindness toward the people with whom he walked through everyday life.
I think we ought to say it together one more time. People of God, what is it that the Lord requires of you. Do justice; love kindness; walk humbly with your God.