Reading Nahum Christianly
Has Nahum no redemptive message that can stand on its own? I think it does, but if we are to hear that message, we will have to read it like Christians. Reading it like a Christian does not mean that we acknowledge how wrathful God used to be in Old Testament times, which makes us all the more grateful for how gracious he is now, thanks to Jesus. This would be to violate the proper meaning of Trinity, as if the Father is wrathful, the Son is gracious, and the Spirit can go either way depending on the day. To read Christianly is to acknowledge that the God of Nahum has been revealed most fully in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is not a different god, a more highly evolved god, or even a different side of the same God. The author of Hebrews refers to him as “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3) because, in Jesus, we have had the closest look to date at the God of creation, flood, Exodus, and covenant. He reveals most fully what the God of the Old Testament has always been about. By the time of Jesus’ birth, the teachers of God’s people had developed some twisted ways of reading the law and the prophets. So Jesus came, among other reasons, to set the record straight on God’s perspective and intentions. The place to which Jesus takes us is the place toward which the Old Testament God was always heading. All of this means that we are not done wrestling with the meaning of Nahum and we are not ready to give an informed opinion about what its message might mean for us today until we can articulate how the God of Nahum is the same God who took on flesh and died so that people from all nations (including Assyria) may be saved.
Yet the path to a truly Christian interpretation does not involve some secret mystical insight or sophisticated scholarly hermeneutic; the path I am recommending is a straightforward reading of Nahum that pays careful attention to authorial cues and that also treats this book, like all other Bible books, as part of God’s ultimate strategy of preparing a people for his mission in this world—a mission that runs through the cross of Jesus and plays out in the work of the church. With this perspective in mind, we might make two important observations about Nahum, one building off of the other.
First, we must note that Nahum was, in fact, a prophet to the Israelites and not to the Ninevites. This is a common characteristic of Old Testament prophecy concerning the nations. Though God had a lot to say about various nations, he seldom sent Israelite prophets to deliver a message directly to them. Jonah was the exception, not the rule. Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Habakkuk, and others, Nahum was an Israelite sent to fellow Israelites to give them a God’s-eye perspective on what he was doing among the nations. The message Nahum gave Israel was the message that God wanted his people to hear so that they might re-order their thoughts and their actions according to his sovereign purposes.
Second, we must pay attention not only to what God was saying through Nahum about Nineveh, but also to why he was saying it. We need to seek author-provided clues as to the ultimate purpose of the book. When we do so, we discover in several places that the author interrupts the regular pattern of God’s judgment upon Nineveh to speak directly into the lives of his primary audience: Israel.
He does so first in 1:6-8, which reads, “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him [namely, the Israelites], even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.”
Then, after detailing divine judgment upon God’s enemies in verses 9-11, the author interrupts himself again in verses 12-13: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Though they [the Ninevites] are at full strength and many, they will be cut off and pass away. Though I have afflicted you [the Israelites], I will afflict you no more. And now I will break off his yoke from you and snap the bonds that bind you.'”
He then returns to judging Nineveh in verse 14 before interrupting again with its meaning for Israel, saying in verse 15, “Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace! Celebrate your festivals, O Judah, fulfill your vows, for never again shall the wicked invade you; they are utterly cut off.”
Chapter 2 contains the most obvious insertion into the basic script of God’s judgment against Nineveh. Verse one begins, saying, “A shatterer has come up against you [Nineveh]. Guard the ramparts; watch the road; gird your loins; collect all your strength.” Then Nahum interrupts himself one last time saying, “For the LORD is restoring the majesty of Jacob, as well as the majesty of Israel, though ravagers have ravaged them and ruined their branches.” He then continues God’s tirade against Nineveh—a tirade that continues for the rest of the book.