|Nahum, Theology of |
Nahum is a biblical book that Christians find easy to avoid. In the first place, it is among the shortest of the Minor Prophets and is overshadowed by Micah, which precedes it and contains some well-known messianic prophecies. The Book of Nahum can be off-putting and even revolting to Christians who know Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek (Matt 5:39) and putting a sword back in its place (Matt 26:52). After all, the prophet exults in the violent downfall of the city of Nineveh and the death of its inhabitants. The book's structure works hand-in-hand, however, with its content to present a theological message of lasting value that can stir the Christian to deeper faith and obedience today.
In Its Old Testament Setting. Nahum must have been written after 663 b.c. because it mentions the fall of Thebes (3:8), which took place at that time. If taken seriously as a prophecy, the book's message must have been presented to the people before 612 b.c., the year Nineveh fell to the invading army made up of Babylonians and Medes. Perhaps it is significant for dating that Assyria is called "intact" in 1:12. This description may point to a date before 626 b.c. when Assyria's vulnerable position became public.
Thus, the historical context of the book may be described at least in broad outline. By the mid-seventh century b.c., Assyria had been the dominant power in the Near East for centuries. Nahum's obvious anger may be understood against the background of the cruel Assyrian oppression that God's people, as well as other nations, had suffered.
The book begins with a hymn of praise to God the divine warrior. This hymn is similar in several ways to the hymns of victory identified in the Psalter (Psalms 24, 68, 96, 98). It praises the Lord, who brings judgment against his enemies (1:2-6) and salvation to h is people (1:7-8). At this point in the book God's enemies and people are not specifically named, but are only generally described.
The themes of salvation and judgment continue into the next major section of the prophecy (1:9-2:2), where the writer magnificently interweaves oracles of judgment and salvation. The objects of salvation and judgment are still not named (with the exception of Judah in 1:15); rather, the second-person pronoun occurs throughout the section. This delay of precise identification causes the reader to be more attentive and also produces a dramatic sense of suspense. Salvation-oracles occur in 1:12-13, 15, and 2:2; judgment-oracles are found in 1:9-11, 14, and 2:1.
The interweaving judgment- and salvation-oracles are followed by a prophetic vision in which Nahum describes the future downfall of the city as if he were there. He sees the invading chariots (2:4), the advancing troops (v. 5), the collapse of the gates and palace (v. 6), and the plundering of the city (v. 9).
This representation of the fall of the city evokes a series of taunts and woes directed toward Nineveh. The once proud lion of city is now without prey (2:11-13). It is likened to a whore who has been caught and now faces public ridicule (3:4-6). Between these two metaphorical taunts stands a woe-oracle (3:1-3). This oracle finds its origin in a funeral ritual, but here no sympathy or sense of loss is expressed. The only intention is to threaten and curse. Nineveh is as "good as dead."
The metaphorical taunts are followed by a historical taunt. Nineveh feels invulnerable, but then so did Thebes and look what happened to that bastion of Egyptian strength (3:8-10).
Insult follows insult in the next section (3:11-15c). Nineveh's fortresses are "ripe figs" about to be eaten and her troops are like women. Nahum closes the long series of taunts by comparing Assyria to a locust horde (3:15d-17). In the Bible, locusts are agents of destruction and are used to depict a devastating army (see Joel 1:2-12; 2:1-11). Here another characteristic of locusts is highlighted: their tendency to fly away.
Appropriately, the book closes with a dirge (3:18-19). The frenzy of staccato visions, of war and sharp insults gives way to calm, mournful expression. As with the woe-oracle, the dirge has its origin in funerary mourning. It is relief and joy, however, not sadness and compassion that are felt at this funeral.
Nahum brought his generation a message from God about his relationship with his people: God is a warrior who is coming to free his people from the oppressive dominance of wicked Assyria. At another time, God had shown compassion toward that city, but now is the time for the judgment of God's enemies and the salvation of his people.
From a New Testament Perspective. The theological value of this book for the Christian church has often been overlooked. The prophecy seems narrow. Nahum speaks an oracle of doom against Assyria, a nation that existed in the distant past. The book's releance for today is difficult to grasp.
Close attention to the literary structure of the book will draw our attention back to its beginning. Before specific application is made to Judah and Assyria, Nahum presents us with a hymn that focuses on God as the saving and judging divine warrior (1:2-8). This picture of God is applicable for all timeshe is the warrior who judges evil.
The Book of Nahum thus fits into an unfolding drama of God's warring activity as it is described from Exodus to Revelation. By the time of Nahum, the Israelites were well aware of God as the divine warrior. He had rescued their forefathers from bondage and judged the Egyptians at the Red Sea. He had also turned against his people in righteous judgment at the time of Samuel's youth and the exile of the northern kingdom.
The divine warrior theme in the New Testament grows out of the motif as we have seen it in the Old. At the end of the Old Testament period the prophets looked forward to the coming of a mighty warlike deliverer (Zech 14) who would deliver the people of Israel out of their oppression. John the Baptist expected the imminent arrival of such a Messiah: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt 3:7-10). When Jesus appeared, however, he did not match John's expectations. Instead of bringing an immediate and violent judgment, Jesus healed the sick and exorcised demons. Later, when John was in prison, he began to doubt Jesus' identity; so John sent two of his followers to question Jesus (Matt 11:1-19). Jesus responded with more healings and exorcisms. By his actions, Jesus was letting John know that he was the divine warrior whom John expected. The warfare, however, was more intense than John had imagined. Jesus waged holy war, not against the flesh-and-blood enemies of Israel, but against Satan himself. This warfare culminated in the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension (Eph 4:7-13; Col 2:13-16), at which time Jesus defeated Satan.
While the victory was won on the cross, the warfare will not be complete until the end of time. Thus, the church struggles even today against Satan and evil. As the Old Testament people were commanded to wage war against the Canaanites, so our mandate is to resist the devil (Eph 6:10-20).
Nahum reveals God as a warrior who fights for his people. As New Testament Christians, we recognize that Jesus Christ empowers the church to fight evil today. When we read the Book of Nahum in conjunction with the Book of Revelation, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is coming again at the end of time to put an end to all evil, whether spiritual or human (Rev 19:11-21).
Tremper Longman III
See also Israel; Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy
Bibliography. D. W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: An Introduction and Commentary; K. J. Cathcart, Biblical Studies in Contemporary Thought: The Tenth AnNIVersary Commemorative Volume of the Trinity College Bible Institute 1966-1975, pp. 68-76; idem, CBQ35 (1973): 179-87; T. H. Glasson, ExpT81 (1969-70): 54-55; W. C. Graham, AJSL 44 (1927-28): 37-48; D. R. Hillers, Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets; W. Janzen, Mourning Cry and Woe Oracle; B. O. Long, JBL95 (1976): 230-54; T. Longman III, WTJ44 (1982): 290-307; idem, JETS27 (1984): 267-74; idem, Reformed Theological Journal1 (1985): 13-24; idem, The Minor Prophets, vol. 2; J. M. P. Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Micah, Zephaniah, and Nahum.