Gleanings from the Bible: Nahum

Here it is again. A prophecy against the capital city of Assyria – Nineveh. Notable because Jonah had already taken the warning of destruction to them – and they repented!

Assuming (with some good reason) that Jonah ministered around 800 to 750BC then Nahum’s message chips in after the fall of Thebes to Assyria (mentioned in 3:8) in 663BC and before the eventual fall of Nineveh in 612BC. Assyria had already destroyed Samaria in 722-721BC and now had its sights set on Judah.

Reading simple accounts of the rise and fall of great powers sometimes sounds so clean cut, so academic. They fail to convey the cruelty, the loss of life, family and home, the sheer bloodiness, pain and grotesqueness of it all! Nahum finishes his prophecy with the comment about Assyria – “for who has not felt your endless cruelty.”

The Medes’ and Chaldeans’ (Babylon’s) sacking of  Ninevah and the establishment of the Babylonian Empire is described in a way that matched the conquests of Assyria itself. “Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses” (3:3). And this, Nahum tells us, was the vengeance of God, his anger and his wrath.

Some would want to jump in at this point with, “Aha! You see! God is a vengeful and bloodthirsty monster. Christ tells us to turn the other cheek but this God is something else!”

A number of points should dissuade us from this view. The first is to take Nahum in the context of Scripture and remember the point made to Jonah after he had wanted the city destroyed, “And should I not have concern for Nineveh,”. We are assured throughout the Bible that God only resorts to judgement after long years of patience and mercy.

The second point is that a god who never acts with justice is no god at all, but Yahweh (the LORD) will not leave the guilty unpunished (1:3). God will forgive, of course, where there is repentance (Jonah’s Nineveh was evidence of that) even while sin still has its consequences, but he will act angrily against unrepentant violence.

A third point is that anger is not always a bad thing. We should be angry about injustice, oppression and the horrific violence perpetrated against people who are just trying to get on with their life. Not the wild, out of control anger that beats the air without achieving anything effective, nor the violent anger that strikes out indiscriminately and uninformed. God is not like that. His anger is passionate but controlled, directed, effective and just. It comes after many warnings. Hence in this case, we have the prophets Jonah and Nahum.

A fourth point is that as Creator, God does have a right to deal with us as he wants since he knows the end from the beginning – but we do not! It means that, though we in western society value our individuality so much, we do not have the individual right to administer our own justice, except with those over whom we have been given legitimate authority and then within legitimate boundaries.

The latter point could lead us into a long ramble through the hills and valleys of what ‘legitimate’ might mean in the context of a harsh dictatorship, what constitutes a legitimate authority, questions concerning a just war and the defence of others, and so on. But the bottom line is, when it comes to God, he is the ultimate authority. He will do what is right and we are encouraged to trust him for what we do not understand.

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 to Nineveh;
he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

The destruction of Nineveh was but temporary relief for wayward Judah, for a few years later God would act against them too, as the conquering Babylonians carried them off into Exile. But for Judah there would be a return, a purified remnant. God’s plan was still unfolding. Through that remnant a Saviour would come for all the nations.

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Gleanings from the Bible: Micah

Micah prophesied at a time when Israel and Judah were both coming under threat from the power of Assyria. The North would soon fall, while Judah would survive to later become victim to Babylon. In common with other prophets Micah’s condemns Samaria and Jerusalem for their idolatry and social injustice. Though amongst the condemnations I was amused to read, If a liar and deceiver comes and says, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer, that would be just the prophet for this people!”  Not without its relevance today?

The way of life perpetuated by these peoples meant that God seemed far off. They will cry out to the LORD but he will not answer them… Therefore night will come over you without visions…  They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God (3:4, 6, 7). Could it be that our own lives as Christians become so compromised by our way of life that we rarely see God at work or even experience his presence?

As always amongst God’s prophets, along with the message of doom is the message of future hope. Chapter 4 talks of The Last Days when Jerusalem is restored as a world centre of learning about God, a time when peace would reign, and a place of worship even as the other nations worshipped their own gods.  ‘The Last Days’ is one of those expressions that can have multiple applications. For Judah it would be a return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple. We could apply it to our own era as we await Christ’s Return (in that even now Jerusalem is seen as a religious centre for the world). But the ultimate fulfilment is at Christ’s Return. The Christ, who perfectly embodied all that the Temple and Jerusalem should have been. Christ, the meeting place with God, the fount of knowledge and learning about God, the one we come to and gather around, the Prince of Peace.

This Christ would also be from the line of King David and in Micah’s day, addressing a greatly diminished Samaria and Jerusalem with Assyria’s sword hanging over them, they needed to be reminded of the covenant God had made with David, that he would always have a descendent on the throne.

Hence the passage that is frequently read at Christmastime, But you Bethlehem, Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. God is able to raise up a leader from insignificant places and in downtrodden, seemingly hopeless circumstances. He did so with David. He will restore Judah. He will raise up the Messiah.

And now we are exhorted, To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Even as a society may deteriorate and fall apart with families turning against each other (chapter 7), as for me I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Saviour; my God will hear me.

The prophecy ends on a high note of expectation (7:18-20) but you can read that for yourself!

Gleanings from the Bible: Jonah

Of all the lessons we could remember from the book of Jonah, the part which has caught people’s imagination and prompted most discussion is one of least importance.

I have no problem believing that the God who created the universe could prepare a large fish to swallow a man and preserve him intact, but it’s hardly the point of the story. There is far more to Jonah than that.

Jonah was sent to his enemies.

The Assyrians were a terrible threat. They were the superpower of the region that eventually destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, took them into exile, scattering them to such an extent that they never really recovered their identity. Those ten tribes were lost. And it is to Assyria’s capital, Nineveh, on the Tigris River, that Jonah is sent to call on its king and inhabitants to repent.

Jonah goes on a cruise

Jonah appears to be heading for Spain, the opposite end of the Mediterranean, a sea cruise instead of a hot, dry, dusty inland slog. This is not simply a case of ignoring God’s command or failing to hear his voice.  It’s open rebellion!

God’s will is irresistible

It’s not that we can’t say “No” to God, it’s just that when we do there are consequences! It seems that God will apply extra pressure on some people to get the job done. The person who is sensitive to God’s promptings can never feel at peace when he or she is not complying. Jonah knows instantly why the storm is threatening their lives. He’s not casting around wondering, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”

The fish is an act of grace

It seems as if Jonah has abandoned himself to his fate when he asks to be thrown overboard. He realises that he can at least save the lives on board the ship and that he cannot escape God’s displeasure. I suppose he expected to die as a punishment.

But God preserves his life, gives him time to reflect and realign his life, and puts him back on land for a second chance.

The point of the story

So Jonah travels to Nineveh, and preaches a message of repentance to his enemies, hoping that the citizens will take no notice and be wiped out by God. Amazingly though, they do repent and God spares them, just as he spared Jonah. And Jonah is furious!

And here is the confession which shows us Jonah’s heart…

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”  What is Jonah saying? “You, God, are merciful, but I am not!” Jonah is not like his God. He is angry enough to want to die! He is more angry over a shade tree dying, leaving him exposed to the sun, than he is about a whole city being destroyed.

God’s statement at the end sums it up…

Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?       

The Application

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures is has always been obvious, but rarely acted upon, that the message of God’s Kingdom is for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites. The good news of God’s kingship was meant to be blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3), friend and enemy alike. And now the inheritors of the Old Testament Covenantal promises are given the same task of taking the gospel into the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20). To the family member that you haven’t spoken to in ten years, to the neighbour who throws rubbish over your fence, to the Asian family playing foreign music loudly across the road, to the Muslims whose faces you can’t see, to the homeless people occupying the park, to the criminals of every sort in the local gaol, to the extremists in the Gay Community, who tried to put you out of business because you did not approve of their lifestyle.

We may feel angry

but God says,

Should I not have concern?      

Who are we like in this story?