Nahum on Nineveh

Scripture: Nahum 1

 

Title: God’s comforting judgment

 

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • God’s comforting judgment
  • God’s righteous anger
  • Conclusion

 

Introduction:

When I was a kid dinner was meat and three veg and sometimes the three veg included Brussel sprouts

–         Boiled Brussel sprouts tasted just awful to me

 

Recently though, I had a salad with thinly sliced raw Brussel sprouts, apple straws and a nice dressing – it tasted surprisingly good

–         I still don’t like boiled Brussel sprouts but I love raw Brussel Sprouts in a salad – delicious

 

This morning we continue our series on the city of Nineveh

–         Over the past few weeks we have looked at Nineveh through the eyes of Jonah

–         Today we begin looking at the city of Nineveh through the eyes of another prophet, called Nahum

 

People generally like the story of Jonah because it’s familiar and because it reveals a God of compassion and mercy

–         A God who is slow to anger and rich in love

–         And they are the characteristics of God that taste good to us

–         Consequently Jonah gets preached on widely

 

Nahum, on the other hand, presents quite a different side of God

–         Nahum uses some very strong language and can leave one with a feeling of judgment and doom

–         In the book of Jonah, God is patient, Nineveh is saved and Jonah is angry

–         But in the book of Nahum, God is angry, Nineveh is destroyed and Nahum’s feelings are not explored

 

Consequently Nahum has the reputation of being the Biblical equivalent of Brussel sprouts

–         Yea, it’s good for you but kind of hard to swallow

–         But if you thinly slice it and eat it raw – if you break it down and understand it in its original context, it is surprisingly good

 

In the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh repented of their violent ways and God had compassion on them – he relented and did not destroy their city.

–         Sadly Nineveh’s repentance did not last

–         Some decades later the Assyrians went back to their violent ways

 

Fast forward 100 years or so from the time of Jonah and God has another message concerning Nineveh

–         This time there is no opportunity for repentance – the Assyrians have gone too far and so Nineveh will be destroyed

–         From Nahum chapter 1, verse 1, we read…

 

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;     the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes     and maintains his wrath against his enemies.

 

The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;     the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm,     and clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and dries it up;     he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither     and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.

 

The mountains quake before him     and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence,     the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation?     Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire;     the rocks are shattered before him.

 

The Lord is good,     a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him,     but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh;     he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

 

Whatever they plot against the Lord     he will bring to an end;     trouble will not come a second time. 10 They will be entangled among thorns     and drunk from their wine;     they will be consumed like dry stubble.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us

 

God’s comforting judgment:

Charles Dickens’ classic novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ begins with that famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

–         This is a kind of paradox – a thing exhibiting apparently contradictory characteristics

–         If we think in terms of ‘either / or’ then we will probably struggle with paradox

–         But when we learn to think in terms of ‘both / and’ then paradox starts to make more sense to us

 

Other examples of paradox include…

–         ‘Nobody goes to that restaurant, it’s always packed’

–         Or, ‘The sound of silence’

–         Or, one by our friend C.S. Lewis, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again”

 

The humble Brussel sprout is a paradox too – it can taste disgusting but it can also taste delicious

 

The Bible is full of paradox – seemingly contradictory things that go together

–         Like our friend Jesus says…

–         ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’

–         Or, ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’

 

Nahum presents us with paradox in the nature of God

–         The same God who is merciful and ready to forgive the people of Nineveh is also a jealous and avenging God

–         God is full of anger but at the same time in control of his anger

–         He can be a powerfully destructive force against the guilty and a refuge for those who trust in him

–         Paradox – it’s ‘both / and’, not ‘either / or’

 

One paradox in particular that Nahum draws out is God’s comforting judgment

 

The name ‘Nahum’ means comforter

–         And yet, Nahum’s message seems anything but comforting

–         It’s about God coming in judgment to destroy Nineveh

–         This is what God (through Nahum) has to say to Nineveh…

 

…but with an overwhelming flood he [the Lord] will make an end of Nineveh;     he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

Whatever they plot against the Lord     he will bring to an end;     trouble will not come a second time. 10 They will be entangled among thorns     and drunk from their wine;     they will be consumed like dry stubble.

 

Nahum is writing poetry here but it is poetry that came true in history

–         The city of Nineveh was eventually overwhelmed by a flood of enemies in the form of the Babylonian army

–         The city was also destroyed by a literal flood of water

–         The river which Nineveh had relied on as a natural defence became the instrument of its destruction

 

To be pursued into the realm of darkness is a frightening image

–         Darkness in Scripture usually means distress, terror, mourning, dread and  oblivion

 

Entangled among thorns is a picture of pain & powerlessness

–         If you are entangled in thorns then you can’t move without tearing your own flesh or impaling yourself

 

Likewise, being drunk means losing all control and making a fool of one self

–         The thing about being drunk is that it’s self-inflicted

–         In other words, Nineveh have brought this disgrace on themselves

–         They, and no one else, are to blame for their predicament

 

Dry stubble is grass or vegetation that has been consumed so only the short little stalks protrude out of the ground

–         To burn the stubble is to completely destroy what is left

–         There will be no trace left of the city

–         This may seem harsh but it is quite fair

–         The Assyrians used a scorched earth policy with others – burning everything to the ground in their wake

–         Now God is going to do the same with them

 

Overwhelmed, tangled, drunk and consumed – this is to be the end for Nineveh

–         How is that comforting?

–         Well, it’s not comforting if you are from Nineveh

–         But to Nineveh’s enemies (especially to Israel), who have suffered much at the hands of the Assyrians, it is actually a great comfort to know that God is on your side

–         That the evil and violence you are suffering will be brought to an end

 

It’s the comfort of facing a violent attacker knowing that the police are on their way – the bad guys are not going to get away with it

 

The paradox of God’s judgment is that it is a comfort for those who trust him and at the same time a nightmare for those who oppose him

 

The Lord is good,     a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him,

 

We don’t like to think about God’s judgment all that much – it scares us

–         We prefer to think about his mercy and forgiveness

–         We still need to remember his judgment though – not so that we are frightened but so that we will be comforted when we suffer injustice

 

If we complain that God is not fair then it could be that we don’t have an adequate grasp of his judgment

–         Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they will be satisfied

–         Things may not be right now but God is going to make them right in the end – there is comfort in knowing this

 

God’s righteous anger:

God’s judgment is comforting and his anger is righteous

 

Verse 2 describes the Lord (Yahweh) as a jealous God

–         We generally think of jealousy as a bad thing

–         We think jealousy is born from the fear of being replaced by a rival

–         We associate jealousy with envy

–         And while it can carry those connotations it can also have a more positive meaning

–         As in having zeal or ardour to safe guard or protect something from thieves and robbers (from those who have no right to it)

 

For example, it is entirely appropriate for a husband to be jealous for his wife and for a wife to be jealous for her husband – jealous in the sense of protecting your marriage and not sharing your partner with another man or woman

 

Likewise, it is a parent’s job to be jealous for their children – to protect them, to not allow any harm to come to them and to search for them when they lost

–         Jealousy in that sense is a good thing

 

Jealousy in its best sense is a form of righteous anger

–         Jesus demonstrated zeal or jealousy for God’s temple when he overturned the tables of the money changes

–         Jesus was rightly angry at the merchants because their greedy presence was preventing people from coming to God for worship & prayer

 

There has been a series of movies over the past decade called Taken, starring Liam Neeson

–         The first in the series tells the story of a retired CIA agent whose daughter is kidnapped by some human traffickers

–         I haven’t watched any of these films, mainly because I have two daughters and I don’t find that sort of thing entertaining

–         But there is a famous scene from the first movie, which has become part of popular culture, where Liam Neeson’s character is on the phone with the kidnappers and says to them…

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for a ransom I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills that I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.

 

This is a bit dark and threatening but it helps to illustrate what we mean by jealousy in a fatherly sense

–         Please don’t misunderstand or misapply the illustration

–         I’m not suggesting we have a license to behave like Liam Neeson’s character in that movie

–         We are not to go after our enemies with death threats

 

The point of the illustration is to help us understand what Nahum is getting at when he says…

–         The Lord is a jealous & avenging God… slow to anger & great in power

 

The Assyrians (the people of Nineveh) had kidnapped the people of Israel

–         You’ve heard the expression, ‘the 10 lost tribes of Israel’ – well it was the Assyrians (Nineveh) who did that

–         They invaded Israel and those they didn’t kill, they carried off into slavery, leaving nothing but scorched earth behind them

–         Like human traffickers they were cruel & brutal and did not show mercy for women & children

 

The Lord God is like Liam Neeson’s character in two ways…

–         He is a loving Father who is jealous for his children Israel

–         He will stop at nothing to go after those who have taken his daughter

–         He is also a mighty warrior – the Lord has a particular set of skills that make him a nightmare for people like the Assyrians

–         The difference with God is that he knows exactly who the Assyrians are and where they live

–         And, unlike any human being, the Lord is qualified to act as judge and executioner

 

Now God’s jealousy isn’t just for his children Israel

–         The Lord is also jealous for his reputation and his role as God

–         If anyone tries to displace God by worshipping idols or by putting themselves in the place of God then the Lord is not happy with that

–         It’s not that God feels threatened or fearful of rivals

–         It is that God feels protective of his creation

–         When we try to displace God, when we worship the things we have made rather than our maker, creation suffers for it

–         God won’t tolerate any rivals because it is bad for the world he loves

 

The people of Nineveh had put themselves in the place of God

–         They were arrogant – they thought they were untouchable, undefeatable

–         And at the time when Nahum delivered his oracle (his burden) they were the leading world power of the day

–         Which makes Nahum’s message even more remarkable – because he was predicting Nineveh’s downfall at the height of their powers

 

One of the things we note about Liam Neeson’s character, in the movie Taken, is that he is calm – he is in complete control of his anger

–         There is quite a bit about God’s anger in our reading from Nahum

 

In verse 2 we are told that the Lord is filled with wrath and then in verse 3 we are told the Lord is slow to anger and will not leave the guilty unpunished

–         These statements seem contradictory don’t they – but its paradox

–         Nahum’s point here is that God is in complete control of his anger

 

That the Lord is filled with wrath tells us (paradoxically) that God cares and is deeply affected by injustice and evil

–         If God didn’t care he wouldn’t feel angry – he wouldn’t feel anything

 

That God is slow to anger tells us that God is in control of his temper – he doesn’t react in the heat of the moment or fly off the handle

–         To give you an idea of how slow to anger the Lord is, the Assyrians’ reign of terror lasted for 250 years

–         God’s anger is righteous – He releases his anger at just the right moment and in just the right measure so that the guilty are not left unpunished

 

The image I get when thinking of God’s anger is one of a huge dam holding back water

–         The water of God’s anger (and power) is released in a controlled way

 

It is precisely because God is good and in complete control that he is qualified to take vengeance on his foes – We are not qualified to pass judgment

 

We don’t have time to explore every line of poetry in these verses but there are a couple of metaphors of God’s power I need to draw your attention to

 

In verse 4 we read that God dries up the sea and makes all the rivers run dry

–         To the ancient Hebrew mind the sea symbolised chaos

–         Nahum is saying here that God has the power to make chaos disappear

–         In other words, God’s jealousy (his righteous anger) restores order

 

Then in verse 5 we read how the mountains quake before the Lord and the hills melt away

–         Mountains and hill are the image of stability and security

–         Nineveh may think they are immovable – as stable and secure as a mountain

–         But before God’s righteous anger they are not

 

What was it Jesus said…

–         “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you”

 

Conclusion:

Our reading from Nahum began today with the words…

–         An oracle concerning Nineveh…

 

The original Hebrew word translated as oracle also means burden

–         Nahum’s message is a burden, just as vengeance is a burden

 

So with all this talk of anger & destruction, where is the good news for us?

–         Well, the good news is: we don’t have to carry the burden of vengeance

–         We don’t have to worry about getting even with our enemies because we know God is more than able to take care of that

 

Following the teachings of Jesus, the apostle Paul (in his letter to the Romans) writes…

 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.   

 

To heap burning coals on their heads isn’t to be taken literally

–         It is a metaphor which means something like, ‘when you show kindness to your enemies, it causes them to burn with shame’

–         Loving your enemies – it’s a paradox

 

Because God takes vengeance on our behalf, we don’t have to – we are free to keep our hands clean and let God do the dirty work

–         Let us pray…

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