For God So Loved the World He Sent Nahum
A sermon shared with us by John C. Nugent of Delta Community.
Michigan pastor, Rob Bell, recently made a splash in the media by going public with his “unorthodox” position on the afterlife. What has raised the hackles of several readers is Bell’s insistence in Love Wins that, when it comes to eternal destinies, God’s love overrides our sinfulness—not just for the elect (which would be orthodox for some), not just for those who say the sinner’s prayer or are immersed into Christ (which would be orthodox for others), and not just for those who actually seek first God’s kingdom with their whole life (which would be orthodox for still others)—but that God’s love overrides the sinfulness of all people, including those who have never heard the message of Christ and those who have heard and have rejected it for some reason. Since God wills all people to be saved, Bell surmises, at some point in time God must get his way. If that doesn’t happen in this life, it must somehow happen in the next one.
Now I have no intention of addressing Bell’s book in this sermon, other than to say that he is going to have to do a lot more work to convince me. But it seems to me that there is only one safe way to write a book about the afterlife; that is, to write a gripping series of fiction novels, infuse them with your theology, offer a disclaimer that the books are just stories and make no claims to be orthodox, and then the masses who read them will subconsciously adopt your position anyway. Such a book would be all the more influential if one could roll it over into a movie and recruit washed up Hollywood stars to play leading roles.
Yet the topic of Bell’s book has provoked so much controversy precisely because he has touched a raw nerve. He has poked and prodded a theological sore spot about which there is much ignorance and, thus, much fear. When it comes to resolving God’s love and God’s wrath, many people have answers that they are not happy with but that they have nonetheless learned to live with. So they prefer that people leave the topic well enough alone. For each time someone brings it up, like an old painful memory, they have to revisit those awkward feelings all over again.
Nahum and God’s Wrath
The book of Nahum raises similar feelings of awkwardness and fear. It is little wonder preachers tend to avoid Nahum. It was written by a no-namer prophet, it appears to be all about God’s wrath, and it doesn’t even focus on God’s people Israel, but on their arch-enemies, the Ninevites, the ruthless and powerful people of Assyria. All of this is evident in the first verse:
“An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh. 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.”
This doesn’t sound like the gracious God we know and love. Verse 3 is even worse. In it, Nahum turns on its head one of the Bible’s most beloved and oft-repeated slogans about God’s grace. You may be familiar with the expression that “God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” It is used in Exodus, Numbers, Nehemiah, Joel, three psalms, and Jonah to emphasize God’s uncommon willingness to not give humans the punishment we deserve. Perhaps the most relevant use is that of Jonah—the only other Bible book to focus on Nineveh (and end with a question mark). Jonah, you may remember, did not want to go to Nineveh and preach its impending doom because he feared that the Ninevites might repent and that God might forgive them just like he had the unworthy Israelites time and again. So after the Ninevites do repent and God does forgive them, Jonah complains to God saying, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2).
So if there is any single phrase in the Old Testament that serves as a concise reminder of God’s superabundant grace, it is this one. And that is precisely why Nahum’s subversion of it in verse 3 is so disturbing. He begins with the familiar soothing refrain, “The Lord is slow to anger,” but then he immediately turns the tables saying, “but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.” For Nahum, unlike all the others, the Lord’s slowness to anger is trumped by his great power and decisive judgment. Indeed, throughout the entire book, Nahum has nothing positive or hopeful to say to the Ninevites. In 2:10, he pronounces “devastation, desolation, and destruction” upon them. In 3:2-3, he dispenses with verbs for rhetorical effect and heaps up strikingly morbid images, saying, “crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!” To this he adds shame in verses 5-7, saying, “I am against you . . . and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle. Then all who see you will shrink from you and say, ‘Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?’” As the book comes to a close, we find more of the same. The final verse reads, “There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?”
From beginning to end, Nahum is about God’s wrath; there is no reprieve for Nineveh. Even Bible commentators are ashamed of this book. Some have written it off as the blind patriotism of a narrow-minded prophet. In Nahum’s eyes, they say, Israel can do no wrong, and the nations can all burn as far as he is concerned. It is a good thing, they continue, that the Bible contains the book of Jonah as well, that it might correct the poor theology of Nahum. And whether or not they are willing to put it so bluntly, preachers say the same thing when they preach Jonah on a regular basis and not Nahum, or when they begin a sermon with Nahum only to end it by giving the last word to Jonah.