Sermon series: Minor Prophets, Major Messages
Sequels are a continuation of a story. Hollywood has learned the value of sequels in the movie industry. Book publishers will often encourage writers to create a sequel, a follow-up to a best seller. You may not have realized it, but the Bible contains a sequel, too.
Nahum is sort of "Jonah: The Sequel." Jonah is the story of a disobedient prophet who refused to follow God's call to preach to Nineveh. He boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction; was thrown overboard because he had caused a great storm; was swallowed by a great fish; then was thrown up on dry ground and given a second chance to go to Nineveh. He eventually went to Nineveh, but he still didn't want to deliver God's message of repentance.
Why the reluctance? Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Nineveh was a wicked city, the epitome of everything Jonah hated in the Gentile world. It was a synonym for godless tyranny. Ninevites had a reputation for cruelty that is hard to fathom in our day. Their specialty was brutality of a gross and disgusting kind. When their armies captured a city or a country, the soldiers would perform unspeakable atrocities - skinning people alive, decapitation, mutilation, ripping out tongues, making a pyramid of human heads, piercing the chin with a rope, and forcing prisoners to live in kennels like dogs. It would be fair to say that everyone feared and hated the Assyrians.
Eventually Jonah preached God's message of repentance to Nineveh. He told them that if they did not give up their brutal practices, oppression of surrounding nations, and evil ways God would crush them. So, much to Jonah's chagrin, Nineveh repented. Her people sought God. The truth about their sinfulness cut them to the heart. God spared Nineveh His judgment—for now.
Some 100 to 150 years passed. Children and grandchildren were born. New kings ascended the Assyrian Empire's throne. You can guess what happened. That repentance? They repented of it. They turned around on their turnaround. The time of sorrow over evil became a hiccup in their legacy of oppression and brutality. Their cruelty increased. They once again sought to capture, torture, and enslave other nations. So Assyria attacked and destroyed Israel. They invaded Judah and overran all the outlying towns. They lay siege to Jerusalem.
In those days of trouble God sent Nahum with a divine message of judgment for Nineveh. His words provide us with great understanding of God's judgment.
I. The man: Judgment for one can mean comfort to others
The book begins: "The oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite" (Nahum 1:1 HCSB). The book's author is Nahum, whose name means "comfort." This is apropos because his message of the coming judgment on Nineveh comforted Judah after their suffering at Assyria's hand.
When Romania was still under communist rule, a Christian pastor commented on Revelation, the favorite book of the Bible for his people. They loved the book of Revelation because, he said, it was written by John, pastor of the church in Ephesus, when he was exiled. Romanian Christians know what it is to be exiled and imprisoned. They suffer as the early Christians suffer. Desperately abused and subjected to cruelty. They read Revelation and hear the clear message: God is God, and he judges the good and the bad. He is personally committed to seeing that evil does not triumph.
This, said the Romanian pastor, is very different from how you North American Christians look at Revelation. You're fascinated with historical details, trying to work out precise future plans and speculations. You wonder about rapture, and hope you will never suffer. We, he said, suffer, and in that suffering hear God speak to us through the prophet.
The way the Romanians today look at Revelation is how the Jews heard Nahum. It was a message of comfort in the midst of their suffering, a word of hope in a dark time of evil, a message that all is not lost. God maintains final control.
It does us good to be reminded that God is still God. He has the final word on pain, injustice, abuse, and unfairness. When we think evil and wicked people win while good and decent people are punished, it is best to not complete the scorecard until the final whistle blows. At that point God will make the correct judgment call. The wicked will be punished and the righteous will be rewarded. That knowledge gives us comfort.
II. The message: God's power will punish wrong
Nahum's prophecy was directed toward Nineveh. They had returned to their wicked and evil ways and were treating nations as objects of commerce to be bought and sold, then discarded when they lost their value. Nahum spoke his message in the form of an oracle or a divine word that pronounced judgment on a foreign nation.
The summation of Nahum's message: "Beware, I am against you. This is the declaration of the LORD of Hosts. I will make your chariots go up in smoke and the sword will devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the sound of your messengers will never be heard again" (Nahum 2:13, HCSB). Some of the most chilling words in the entire Bible are: "I am against you, declares the Lord." Who would want God against them? What a frightful prospect—not merely left to wander around in their own resources, but having the God of Creation, the Lord of Heaven's armies, actively opposing you. If God is against us, what does it matter who is for us?
"The Lord of hosts" referred to the power of God and appears often the Old Testament in military contexts. "Chariots," "lions," "prey," and "messengers" referred to the strength of the Assyrians. The Lord himself intended to reduce Nineveh's strength to rubbish. The four evidences of the coming end of Nineveh due to God's judgment were: Nineveh's chariots would be burned, the sword would devour its soldiers, no prey would be brought back to Nineveh, and the voice of its messengers would be stilled. God would have the final word. He would defeat, destroy, and annihilate Nineveh.
Isaiah 36 and 37 record the story of Assyria's defeat. While the Assyrian army camped outside Jerusalem the Lord's angel came in the night and killed 185,000 soldiers. The remainder was forced to retreat. Soon after, as King Sennacherib prayed in the temple of his idol god, his own sons assassinated him. Not long after that the Babylonian army overwhelmed and destroyed Nineveh. Nahum provided a peek at how the defeat would take place: "The river gates are opened; the palace melts away" (Nahum 2:6 ESV).
According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, Babylon laid siege to Nineveh. In the third year of the siege there were extraordinarily heavy rains. The river overflowed, flooded the city, and collapsed a large section of the wall. The king of Nineveh figured that all was lost, so he collected all his wealth, his concubines, and his eunuch. He set fire to the palace, killing everyone. The enemy entered at the breach the waters had made and took the city. In other words, they came in through the river gates to discover the palace in flames.
Nahum prophesied these events. His message of judgment came true.
The message of judgment is often one we would rather not discuss. Our belief system would rather exclude punishment for wrong when it concerns our own sins. We are not a people prone to accountability or, worse, retribution. We would rather not believe that there are consequences for our actions. We think we can go on our way avoiding any reprisal for wrong. We should know differently.
III. The Meaning: The God of love is also the God of judgment
Granted, the idea of judgment does not fit with the picture we want of a loving God. In fact, it stretches our minds to envision a God of judgment. Somehow that idea does not mesh with the goodness of God. But the fact is that God brings judgment as a part of his goodness. How could a good God allow evil to exist? How could a loving God not punish the evildoer? One commentator wrote, "His judgment is an inevitable expression of his goodness on behalf of the victims of evil."
Someone once said, "If you cannot get angry when you hear or see injury and injustice, it is proof that you are not capable of love, for the one who cannot be angry is the one who cannot love. If you can read stories of atrocities and oppression and the awful traffic in body-destroying and soul-destroying drugs and narcotics among young people and never be moved to burning anger, then I tell you there is something wrong with you."
God executes his judgment out of his love. We often execute our judgment out of hate. God does not judge because of the deep satisfaction it brings Him to inflict pain and suffering.
We become livid when we read that another child has been raped or another innocent victim has been murdered. We feel the need for retribution. For God to sit idly by and never deal with those issues would give us cause for great concern. God is not amoral. He is loving but also just. In loving justice he will powerfully adjudicate over his creation.
IV. The meaning: The God of salvation is also the God of judgment
Many people are uncomfortable with God's role as the Judge. They prefer the meek and mild Savior. They want love and forgiveness, but not the accountability and judgment. In the Bible, we have a clear picture that Jesus, the One who was slain for our sins, will be the One executing judgment on our sin. God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the only One qualified to be both Savior and Judge.
A teenage pedestrian did not notice an oncoming truck as he crossed a busy boulevard in New York City. Just before the young man darted in front of the speeding vehicle, a strong hand grabbed his shirt and pulled him back safely to the curb. Red with fear and adrenaline, the teen thanked the elderly man for saving him. Several weeks later the same teenager was in court to stand trial for stealing a car. When the boy looked up at the judge, he recognized him. "Hey, you're that man who saved me a few weeks back when the truck was coming," exclaimed the young man. "Surely you can do something now!" "Sorry, son," replied the magistrate. "On that day I was your savior. Today I am your judge!"
All people have the opportunity to repent and experience the benefit of salvation, just as the Ninevites had that opportunity when Jonah preached. In fact, Jesus longs for all people to come to repentance. But when we stand before God, the Judge, the opportunity is gone. At that time judgment will be executed.
No one can be grandfathered into the faith. Our faith is our own. We must cling to it, not to what the generations did before us. We must personally accept the invitation to come to the God of salvation, for when we stand before the God of judgment it will be too late.
But we have a way to avoid God's judgment. Jesus bore the same wrath of God that Nineveh bore. But Jesus took the wrath we deserve so that we could be spared, the same way Nineveh was spared when her people repented. Jesus took God's judgment on the cross. All of our wicked and vile sins were nailed there with Him. He alone is our Savior. We need to turn to Him, trust Him, and follow Him.
Nahum serves as a warning, driving us to the cross of Jesus. For there we see God's perfect combination of love and justice. His poured out His wrath against sin on Jesus. His love is evidenced in Jesus' willingness to die for our sins, receiving the punishment so that we could be set free. All we need to do is to go to Jesus, repenting of our sins, trusting in his free gift of salvation, not for a moment or for a season, like the Assyrians, but fully and forever.