Background to Nahum
Jonah preached in Nineveh (present-day Iraq) around 760 B.C and despite misgivings, his message resulted in the repentance of the people of Nineveh who were spared God’s judgment at that time.
However, Assyria did not repent forever. Before long, they were back to their old habits of idolatry. With cruel barbarity, Assyria returned to afflicting punishment on Israel and Judah. They were ruthless in the treatment of their enemies – laying waste to property, burying and skinning people alive, impaling them on poles, and otherwise brutally killing men, women and children with impunity.
About 100 years after the repentance that came from Jonah’s preaching, Nahum writes his little book. At this point, Assyria has reached the pinnacle of its economic and military power; yet Nahum predicts God’s complete destruction of Nineveh. It would seem very unlikely to Nahum’s Judean audience that such a mighty nation could suffer the devastation that Nahum described.
However, God keeps His promises, and about forty years later, Nineveh was indeed destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes, in 612 B.C. In fact, the destruction was so complete that archaeologists did not discover the remains of that huge city until 1842, over 2,400 years after it was conquered.
Nahum the Prophet
Like many of the “minor” prophets, we learn very little about Nahum personally. The likely reason that we are given so little personal background is that God does not intend for us to consider the messenger so much as the message. All we know about Nahum for sure is that he was from the small Judean town of Elkosh.
Nahum’s name means “comfort.” This is most appropriate considering that Nahum’s message about the coming destruction of Assyria would bring consolation to Judah, which viewed its aggressive neighbor with horror.
Nahum’s Predictions about Nineveh
The book of Nahum is an “oracle,” a statement of condemnation or a threatening treatise, in this case about the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.
In chapter 1, Nahum describes the certainty of God’s predictions, in chapter 2 he clearly describes the exact form God’s destruction will take, and in chapter 3, Nahum provides the underlying reasons for God’s punishment.
Chapter 1 – God’s Punishment is Certain
Nahum begins by describing God’s Character to Judah:
- God is jealous, Nahum says (v 2). While we would normally consider this to be a negative term, with regard to God it illustrates His commitment to protecting those He loves.
- God is slow in becoming angry (v 3). He directly warned Nineveh by Jonah’s preaching. Then God watched and waited for 150 more years while Nineveh ignored Him.
- While God is patient, He is also just and therefore He will judge evil by revenging Himself on His enemies (vs 2-3, 6).
- God has power, not only over creation (vs 3-6), but also over nations (vs 9-14).
Nahum also gives Judah God’s Comfort by making two promises to them:
- First, he tells them that “the Lord is good, a strong hold” in the day of trouble; and “He knoweth them that trust in Him” (v 7). Those that trust in the Lord can rest in His patient love.
- Second, while Israel had been taken into captivity by Assyria in 721 B.C., now in turn, Assyria itself would be punished and Israel would live in a time of peace.
Chapter 2 – Description of Nineveh’s Destruction
Nahum’s description of the coming devastation of Assyria by the Medes and Babylonians is specific and is written in a literary style using vivid, graphic words. These descriptions are not hypothetical; the reality followed the prediction in every detail!
God promised that:
- Nineveh’s walls would be destroyed by a flood (ch 2:6, 8; ch 1:8). In fact the walls of the city were breached by the rising flow of the two rivers near Nineveh.
- Its buildings would burn with fire (ch 2:13; ch 1:10). Archeology shows the charred remains of buildings, including ash two inches thick.
- Nineveh’s inhabitants would fail while trying to escape (ch 2:8). Historians confirm the death of all who were living within the city.
- The attackers would be dressed in red (ch 2:3). The Medes wore scarlet uniforms.
- Plunder and pillage would follow (ch 2:9-10). Every item of value was removed from the city and carried away by the conquerors.
- Prior to the attack, Nineveh would be drunk (ch 1:10; ch 3:11). History records that they were inebriated at the time of the final, critical attack.
- The destruction of Nineveh would be final (ch 1:9, 14). Nineveh has never been rebuilt, even to this day.
Chapter 3 – Underlying Reasons for God’s Actions
God was not being capricious in His treatment of Assyria. After extended periods of mercy, they finally received the fate that they deserved. Even though God had used Assyria as a tool in prior years to punish Israel, the Assyrians were not excused for their own sins. They were murdering, covetous, liars (ch 3:1). God held them to account, dealt with their sin, and all the nations that heard about it subsequently applauded God’s justice (ch 3:19). God judges both individual and national sins and we ignore His warnings at our peril.
Implications for Christians Today
God gave this message to Judah because He knew that they needed encouragement and comfort: what a comfort to Judah to know that God was in control and that He would judge righteously in the end. We also can rest in the understanding that God patiently remains involved in international justice and injustice.
Applying our times to the example in Nahum, do we appreciate God like Judah or are we treating God like Assyria did – covetously, untruthfully, or idolatrously? It is easy to cloak our nation in the role of the oppressed Judah and then look elsewhere in our world to find examples of nations that hate God to cast in the role of Assyria. But perhaps we should not so quickly claim self-appointed righteousness. If we are truly honest, we have to admit that there are aspects of our national character and aspects of our individual lives that are more like Assyria’s than Judah’s. We are often remiss in our relationship with God and in obeying His claims on our lives.
In humility, we should approach Him with repentant hearts and with the respect and reverence He deserves. We should trust Him to judge righteously and to be “good, a stronghold” in the day of trouble” (ch 2:7). If we do so, He will reveal Himself to us and help us to live in a Christ-honoring way, since “He knoweth them that trust in Him” (ch 2:7).