How to Read Nahum Theologically
In a previous article on reading Micah theologically, I outlined the foundational presuppositions involved in reading Scripture theologically. Namely, we hold that God is the author of Scripture, Christ is the telos of Scripture, and the church is the owner of Scripture. These foundational principles are key if we are to read the books of the Old Testament as Christians, because we know that Christ had not yet come when they were written, and of course the church was nonexistent. Yet, the New Testament teaches clearly that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). And not only do we have Paul’s testimony about the role of Scripture in the church, but Christ repeatedly declared that the Scriptures testified of him. To the scoffers he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). And to the weary believers on the Emmaus Road he said, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27).
So, we come to the small book of Nahum with these convictions, asking it to speak to the church today, though we are centuries, miles, and a covenant removed. And Nahum does not disappoint.
The Lord Is a Jealous and Avenging God
This is the sermon Jonah wanted to preach. Remember Jonah being “angry enough to die” (Jonah 4:9)? That was because he knew that “you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Nahum opens by loosely quoting the other part of the passage—Exodus 34:6–7—that made Jonah so reluctant to preach to Nineveh:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. (Nah 1:2–3)
In Jonah, Yahweh was concerned to fulfill his promise of long-suffering and mercy; in Nahum, he is concerned to fulfill his promise of not allowing the guilty to go unpunished. Both are essential parts of God’s character, and both are exemplified in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus Christ. In his first coming, Christ made a way for sinners to be reconciled with God. This is the ultimate example of God’s gracious kindness, his covenant faithfulness, to his children. And yet when Christ returns again he will come in judgment, thus bringing to completion the other side of Exodus 34:6–7. In both of these, Christians rejoice, for both put on display God’s mercy and God’s just judgment. We take hope today because God has not yet fully poured out his judgment, and we also take hope today because we know his judgment will one day come upon his enemies. Both aspects of God’s nature fuel our passion for missions and hope in the midst of suffering: God is forgiving, God is just, God will set right all wrongs. Both aspects of God’s nature fuel our passion for missions and hope in the midst of suffering: God is forgiving, God is just, God will set right all wrongs. Click To Tweet
The Lord is Good
Nahum’s statement of God’s goodness flows from and is intertwined with his conviction that God will judge. Nahum states:
The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,
and will pursue his enemies into darkness. (Nah 1:7–8)
Here we find again the hope that followers of Yahweh had in the Old Testament and followers of Christ have in the New. Because the Lord is good, we can rest confident that he will indeed judge his enemies and also rescue his servants. Both of these things—rescue and judgment—are part of his goodness. To separate them would introduce a concept foreign to the biblical witness and indeed would be a false witness against God’s character. He. Is. Good.
The Lord is Sovereign over All Nations
Nahum shows us that God is sovereign over all nations, not only over his special possession, Israel. Such truth comes as a welcome balm for Christians around the world facing persecution, for they can hold fast to the truth that God will judge his enemies, that God is good, and that God remains sovereign over all people, even when circumstances may indicate that he is not. Even when darkness surrounds us, like Nahum we know that God will one day demonstrate his sovereignty over all by both welcoming the nations into his fold and by judging those who stubbornly refuse his calls of grace.
Another facet of God’s sovereignty that requires careful, prayerful consideration comes in Nahum 1:12: “Though I have afflicted you, I will afflict you no more.” God really is sovereign over all things. Like the Israelites under God’s judgment for their sinful rebellion against him, and like Job under God’s affliction though he was “blameless” and “feared God” (Job 1:8), Christians today must wrestle with suffering in light of God’s sovereignty. I certainly cannot untie this knot here, but somehow we must recognize that God, for reasons only he sometimes knows, allows—and even causes—suffering. As we look upon the suffering that surrounds us daily—and that we encounter personally—may we throw ourselves upon God, trusting in his mysterious sovereignty though we do not, and often cannot, understand his ways.
The small book of Nahum can be a shock to the system. In it we find God promising violence upon his enemies (“Behold, I am against you” [2:13]) and taking credit for afflicting his own people (1:12). We also find God offering consolation to his people (“I will afflict you no more” [1:12]) and reasoning for his just judgment: “For upon whom has not come your [Nineveh’s] unceasing evil?” (3:19). Nahum finds these tensions imbedded in Exodus 34:6–7, God’s self-declaration to Moses:
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
God is good. God is sovereign. God is just. God is merciful. We hold these doctrines in tension, steadfast in our reliance upon him.