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: Hosea

Is God into judgement or into love and mercy? Our answer to that question will determine how we respond to those who fail in church life, whether the lay or the leadership. It’s easy to see that we can find ourselves towards either end of the spectrum – harsh and unfeeling at one extreme or weak and irresponsible at the other.

The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle and it seems to me that the prophecy of Hosea gets the balance right.

The theme of marriage is used to illustrate the Covenant relationship between Yahweh and his people. Israel is likened to an adulterous wife, chasing after idols and the heinous practices associated with them (13:2). Israel has made vows to worship and serve Yahweh alone and there are consequences for breaking those promises and the conditions associated with them. Both the leadership and the people are culpable. God is justifiably angry…

            “I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals
she decked herself with rings and jewellery
and went after her lovers
but me she forgot,”
declares the LORD. (2:13)

However, in the following sentences we read…

            “Therefore I am going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her…”
“There she will respond as in the days of her youth…”
“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master’…” (2:14-16)

The very act of judgement can be seen clearly as discipline to restore Israel to all that will make life abundant, stemming from her devotion to her Maker, Lord and devoted Husband.

            “I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.  (2:19)

The wrath of God (his justifiable anger and judgement) are seen clearly as an act of discipline where, “I long to redeem them…” (7:13). That longing of God for Israel is laced through the text contrasting with the withholding of compassion until the (often horrifically severe) judgement is meted out: “I will have no compassion…” (13:14b), “The people of Samaria will bear their guilt” (13:16), “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (11:1), Return Israel to the LORD your God (14:1), “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely” (14:4).

The Christian church has often struggled to get the balance right between judgement and mercy. Too often a lack of rigorous discipline has allowed destructive attitudes and activities to flourish and at others it has been so harsh, unfeeling and unrelenting as to drive people away for ever. I remember that someone once said something to the effect that, when you preach about Hell you should only do it with tears in your eyes.

May God give us the strength to not retreat from church discipline but to apply it with wisdom and a heartfelt love and longing for the restoration of the people concerned. I am sure we will have much healthier fellowships as a result.