31 Jul Nahum Who?
Majoring on the Minors
July 28, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
This morning we come to the seventh of the twelve Minor Prophets we are studying this summer, and if you’ve been waiting for a guy who seems full of hell, fire, and brimstone, well, maybe today is your day. As Claride just read, Nahum begins with the chilling words, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God. The Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies…the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.”
Wow. You can’t help but wonder if Nahum is having a bad day. Or perhaps God is. In our contemporary context, we’re not sure what to make of words like “jealousy” being used to describe God, and hey, what’s with God being filled with wrath and taking vengeance on people? Wrath and vengeance seem so unbecoming of God.
Yet in the middle of Nahum’s rant, he also says that “the Lord is slow to anger.” He goes on to cite a litany of judgments God will visit on evil-doers, before concluding that “the Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. God cares for those who trust in him.”
Clearly we need some context if we are to understand the vivid imagery that Nahum uses to speak about God. We need to start by saying that Nahum believes two things about God. First, the prophet acknowledges God’s justice on everything that is evil. Second, he affirms God’s mercy for people. Nahum juxtaposes these two themes, arguing that justice and love are two sides of the same coin. One without the other becomes a distortion. Love without justice becomes permissive. Justice without love becomes harsh and punitive.
That still leaves us wondering what to do about the idea of “wrath” as it relates to God. There are people who want to completely abolish any such notion when it comes to God and think of God only in terms of love. Wrath is simply too antiquated and well, it’s just not nice.
Dr. Miroslav Volf is a Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is a Croatian Protestant who has been described as a public intellectual and “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day.” In his early years, Dr. Volf rejected the concept of God’s wrath. He regarded it as barbaric and inconsistent with the Bible’s portrayal of God as love. He then witnessed a severe war in his homeland of Croatia. Terrible atrocities were committed. It was estimated that 200,000 people were killed and three million more displaced. His own village was gutted and his neighbors brutalized. As a result of this experience, Dr. Volf said he could not imagine that God was not angry over the evil that had been perpetrated. He came to believe that God is wrathful because God is love. The key is that God is not one without the other. God is both at the same time.
When I try to grasp what Nahum is getting at, it helps me to think about the relationship of anger and love in the context of a parent protecting a child. Especially when they are small and unable to defend themselves, someone deliberately doing harm to a child triggers an automatic reflex in mothers and fathers to protect their child at all costs. If we, in our imperfect love, can be spurred to take vengeance given the right provocation, how much more might God be spurred to action when his children are the victims of evil?
We learn at the outset of Nahum’s prophecy that his judgment oracle is directed at Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. We visited Nineveh a couple of weeks ago when God called Jonah to preach a message of judgment and repentance to the people of that city. At the time and to Jonah’s chagrin, Jonah’s preaching had a dramatic effect on the Ninevites. Everyone, from the king to the barn animals, had donned sackcloth and ashes. They confessed, did an about-face, and God showed them mercy. You might say God issued the Ninevites a stay of execution.
By the time Nahum enters the picture a hundred years later, Nineveh has returned to their old, evil ways. They have forgotten God’s compassion and mercy in the days of Jonah and have reverted to the vile, nasty people they were before, people who thought nothing of torturing and massacring their neighboring nations. Nahum ends his prophecy with the rhetorical question, “Who has not felt [the Ninevites] endless cruelty?” (3:19).
Nahum now has the task of saying to the Ninevites, “You won’t get away with this. God sees what you are doing, and God will not allow your evil to have the final word. God’s love and justice will be the final word, and you will be held accountable for the evil you have done.” And Nahum’s prophecy of judgment does, indeed, come true. A new superpower, Babylon, bursts onto the world scene and routs the Assyrians in 612 B.C. They level Nineveh to the ground. This once mighty capital city of the Assyrians has been buried in ruins for centuries.
In 1845 British archeologist Austen Henry Layard set out to locate Nineveh. He narrowed his search to the area around Mosul in modern-day Iraq and became especially intrigued with two mounds outside the city. One was off-limits because it contained a Muslim relic dedicated to Mohammed, so Layard began his dig on the other mound. He unearthed vast portions of Nineveh, including the royal residence of King Sennacherib who was responsible for Israel’s destruction in 722 B.C. The 71 rooms in his expansive palace were decorated with ornate stone carvings to celebrate his numerous military exploits.
Kings, presidents, world leaders rise and pass away. Isaiah declares that nations are a drop in the bucket (40:15). Monarchs rest in their tombs while God remains on his throne. Jesus reminded us of this truth when he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). But as we know, that does not mean that evil doesn’t have a real presence in our world or that our lives are spared any brush with it. So, what would Nahum have us do when evil intrudes upon us?
I think first, Nahum wants us to not be surprised by evil. Peter echoes this theme when he says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). In the short run, we’re going to experience pain, loss, suffering, chaos and evil. Things are not going to be as they should be.
Second, Nahum is inviting us to remember that things aren’t always what they seem. When Israel was bearing the brunt of Nineveh’s wrath, they certainly must have felt discouraged. After all, back in the day, Nineveh was considered invincible and impenetrable. The city was eight miles in diameter and fortified with walls so thick that chariot races were rumored to take place on the top of its flat surface. The city was surrounded by four rivers which functioned as a protective moat. To gain access to Nineveh, you would have to navigate the rivers and traverse the walls.
God raises up a prophet to announce that mighty Nineveh is going to fall. That would have been unthinkable in those days. Yet, things are not always what they seem. God is involved in ways we cannot imagine. God is working out his divine, redemptive purposes even in absurd, outrageous, horrific situations. Evil will not stand. Perpetrators of evil will not get off scot-free. Even death will be shown to be an imposter, unable to forever separate us and hold us in its grip. This is why it matters that God’s word stands when everything else falls apart, that God is on an eternal throne while the Caesars of the world all return to the dust from which they came.
Between here and there, now and then, Nahum says, take refuge in God. Nahum does not diminish the pain we endure when we encounter evil. He does not pretend things are better than they are or encourage us to wishful or delusional thinking. He encourages us to take our pain, our grief, our outrage to God, to trust God with and in the midst of our suffering.
Taking refuge in God doesn’t mean that health, wealth and prosperity will arrive at the door. It doesn’t mean God will wave a magic wand and remove the source of our pain. It means trusting that God is good and loving; that we are not alone in our suffering because God is with us; and that God will make things right in ways we can’t even imagine.
Theologian N.T. Wright says that “the Biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates—anything that destroys his beautiful creation. If God does not hate racial prejudice, then God is neither loving nor good. If God does not exercise wrath at child abuse, God is neither loving nor good. If God does not root out of his creation the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb or bully each other, God is neither loving nor good.”
There is one critical distinction between our anger and God’s. God’s wrath is not directed at people. God loves people. God’s wrath is directed at sin. God hates what sin does to people. Sin wrecks relationships. It leads people to be self-destructive. It leads us to behave inhumanely, to value things more than people, gain more than generosity, winning more than sharing. It leads us to be selfish and arrogant and o’ the evils that proceed from self-centered, prideful hearts.
God’s wrath and love, or to use a different pair of words, God’s justice and mercy, meet at the cross. In Jesus Christ and specifically in his sacrifice, the truth comes most vividly into focus. The cross looks like a crushing defeat, like evil has won, but things are not what they appear. At the cross sin and death are dealt a decisive, eternal blow, in which God’s love and mercy are the final words.
Thanks be to God. Amen.