The interpretive riches of this opening hymn are almost beyond enumerating, for we have here only a little less than a complete presentation of the biblical witness to God’s person: the testimony to his covenant love and to his patient mercy; his intimate knowledge of his own and his protection of them; his just lordship over his world and his might in maintaining his rule; his specific but also eschatological defeat of all who would challenge his sovereignty. The God portrayed here is really God, different from all lesser imitations, and different too from those impotent idols that we often project upon our universe.
The force of the hymn can be felt more clearly if the Hebrew word order is reproduced:
A jealous God and an avenger is the Lord,
An avenger is the Lord and owner of wrath,
An avenger is the Lord against his enemies,
and a keeper of anger is he against his foes (v. 2).
The threefold repetition of “avenger” builds to the final “keeper.” But there follows the recognition of the Lord’s long patience with sin, in verse 3a, and the same two thoughts of his mercy and judgment are once again presented side by side in verses 7 and 8.
The God of the Bible is throughout its pages a jealous God, because he has made for himself a people to serve his purpose; and he wills that that people neither stray from his purpose and devotion to him nor be deterred by any enemy from their covenant calling. The imagery of God’s “jealousy” is of his zealous will driving forward toward his goal of salvation for his earth. When any human foes would thwart that drive, God becomes their enemy—an avenger who is master or “owner” of wrath against all challenges to his lordship. That is a threatening picture only to those who want to be their own gods and rule the earth in their own ways, but to those who trust God it is a comfort and an affirmation that he is truly sovereign.
This hymn emphasizes the grace that is to be had from God. “Good is the Lord,” reads verse 7a in the Hebrew order, with the emphasis on “good.” “There is indeed nothing more peculiar to God than goodness” (Calvin, III, 430). Our very term “God” is a shortened form of “good” and is an acknowledgment that all good flows from him. Human beings cannot have goodness in the world apart from God, and God is dependent on no other source for his goodness. His goodness does not depend on what happens to some person or on what our fortunes are. Thus, our Lord, on his way to the cross, could affirm, “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19), because it is the essence of faith that it confesses in any circumstance, “The Lord is good to all, / and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). On a bed of pain, faith says, “Truly God is good.” In trouble and affiiction and persecution, faith knows God is good—that all his history with his people has been the working out of his good for them and that all the future ahead will be guided by his goodness. So too here, Nahum, at the turbulent end of an age, with kingdoms tottering and armies clashing, affirms, “Good is the Lord.”
Nahum gives two illustrations of the goodness of God. He is “a stronghold in the day of trouble” (v. 7b), a mighty fortress inside whose protecting arms we need not fear though the earth should change and the mountains shake in the heart of the seas (Ps. 46). He gives enduring protection—for strongholds are no temporary camps—from assaulting foes and safety from destruction. He provides the place of peace and quiet conscience midst the raging warfare of hell’s armies. He is the one to whom our Lord on the cross, with the forces of sin and death arrayed against him, could say in confidence as he breathed his last, “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:461//Ps. 31:5).
God is also good because “he knows those who take refuge in him” (v. 7c), that is, he knows those who rely on him for their life and sustenance and guidance. And God’s knowledge is far more than simply nodding acquaintance, far more than recognition of a name at a distance. God’s knowledge implies intimate care, tender concern, loving communion, like the knowledge of a loving husband for his wife or of a concerned father for his son (cf. Hosea). Indeed, God’s knowledge of those who rely on him goes even beyond that, for he numbers the hairs of his beloved ones’ heads; he knows their needs, their wants, their sufferings. He besets them behind and before and is acquainted with all their ways. There is not a word they speak that God does not know beforehand. There is not a path they have trod with which God is unacquainted or a road they travel of whose end God is not aware. He knows when they lie down and when they rise and is ever present with them. Such is the goodness of God to which Nahum here gives testimony.
But … but … twice Nahum uses that word (Hebrew waw): “but the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (v. 3b); “but with. an overflowing flood/he will make a full end of his adversaries (Hebrew: her place) and will pursue his enemies into darkness” (v. 8). God is enemy of those who defy his lordship; and that too is part of his goodness, for God will not allow evil to triumph in the world. Instead, he will drive it into darkness, pursue it until it disappears into the lifeless realm of chaos and void and nothingness, in short, until it is totally at an end and God’s goodness alone remains on earth.
It is almost incomprehensible that our age has so softened these thoughts of God’s destruction of evil to which Nahum here gives expression. For if God does not destroy the evil human beings have brought into God’s good creation, the world can never return to the wholeness he intended for it in the beginning. To divest God of his function as destroyer of wrong is to acquiesce to the present corrupt state of the world—to accept the sinful status quo and simply to put up with whatever is done by selfish and prideful and corrupted men and women. But surely part of the message of the cross is that evil must be done away by God, if his Kingdom is ever to come on earth as he has promised it will.
Notably, however, Nahum emphasizes that God will be the destroyer of wrong and corruption. Over against all thoughts of human vengeance, of human pursuit of evildoers, Nahum emphasizes that emphatic triad, “an avenger is the Lord … an avenger is the Lord … an avenger is the Lord” (v. 2). “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” quotes Paul of the Lord (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30; cf. I Thess. 4:6; Matt. 5:39), and Nahum differs in no respect from such New Testament teaching. He expects God to do away with Assyria, and his whole book rejoices over the righteous action of his righteous God. “Our hearts must learn to give way to the wrath of God,” wrote Paul Kleinert (p. 21), that is, to step aside for God’s requital and destruction of evil, and not take them into our own hands. We must learn what it means to pray, “Deliver us from evil,” and what it means to love the enemies of God’s goodness. Certainly it does not mean approbation or total passivity toward sin and wrong, any more than it means that we should try to replace God as redeemer of the world. But in dealing with evil, in our world and in our enemies and in ourselves, we are to rely on God’s work and not on our own, as he works through both his covenant people and the affairs of nations. “Not my will, but thine be done” is here too the rule of faith.
God’s goodness is further emphasized by Nahum in this hymn in his use of· the familiar Old Testament phrase, “The Lord is slow to anger …” (v. 3a). Surely that must have seemed the case in Judah’s experience of the Assyrian Empire. For over one hundred years, ever since the accession of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.) to the Assyrian throne, Judah had suffered under the barbarities of the cruelest conqueror of the ancient Near East. She had watched her ten kindred tribes to the north in Israel deported in 722/1, to be lost forever from history. She had become the vassal to Assyrian might under Ahaz in 734 B.C.
When she revolted in the reign of Hezekiah, she had watched forty-six of her cities destroyed before the armies of the Assyrian Sennacherib, and she had stayed alive only by stripping herself of treasure to pay heavy tribute. Finally, under Manasseh (687/6-642 B.C.), she had watched Assyrian gods and goddesses set up in her temple, seen her prophets persecuted and killed, and witnessed her court officials parading Assyrian customs and dress (cf. Zeph. 1:2-9).
If one reads Assyrian documents recounting the acts of that empire (see Pritchard), one finds them full of accounts of cruelty, pridefully recounted by the Assyrian rulers. In the face of that, Judah must have thought God was surely slow to anger!
Yet it is a mark of God’s goodness that he is forbearing and patient and long-suffering with human sin. “It is a weakness of ours that we want the Lord to take vengeance right now,” wrote Luther. “When his vengeance is not immediate, we think it’s all over with us” (XVIII, 286). But God is exceedingly slow to anger, because he is exceedingly great: It is the little cur that yaps at every threatening noise—the lion waits and seems to doze. God is forbearing toward his creatures, because he is great in power: The weak cannot bear an insult and they immediately answer back; the lordly smile and shrug off foes and need not deign to harm them, for they know the foe has no real power and cannot prosper long. God always gives his creatures much time to turn to him. He never smites without threatening —by sickness, by providence, by consequence, by his word. Indeed, he is even slow to threaten:
He doth not even threaten the sinner by his conscience, until the sinner hath oft-times sinned. He will often tell the sinner of his sins, often urge him to repent; but he will not make hell stare him hard in the face, with all its dreadful terror, until much sin has stirred up the lion from his lair, and made God hot in wrath against the iniquities of man. He is slow even to threaten (Spurgeon, “Mercy, Omnipotence and Justice,” p. 689).
And then, having threatened, how slow he is to sentence the criminal! In Eden, God· had promised that in the day in which the man and woman ate of the forbidden fruit, they would surely die, but God takes a walk in the cool of the day before he levels that sentence (Gen. 3).
Then, having sentenced, how slow he is to carry it out! Surely the cities of earth have lived under the sentencing wrath of God, but how long it has taken for them to fall! Nineveh, Babylon, Jerusalem, Rome have each basked in glory for hundreds of years before the God whose wrath is hard to kindle has said to them, “Be gone!”
However, lest the reader of Nahum’s words think God’s hesitancy is due to lack of power, the prophet, in the manner of Numbers 14:17 and Romans 9:22, emphasizes also God’s might. The Lord is of great might (v. 3a), and Judah is not to think that he has ignored ,the excesses of Assyria out of weakness, in comparison either with Assyria’s armies or with her gods. It is the creator God whom Nahum pictures in verses 3c–5, the God who rebuked the waters of chaos at the original creation (v. 4; cf. Isa. 51:10) and who heaped up the waters of the Reed Sea and of the Jordan to let his people cross over on dry land (cf. Ps. 77:16-20; 106:9; Isa. 50:2). We therefore may have the remnant of a New Year’s liturgy here, recited to celebrate God’s founding of the earth. But this God can also wither the watered pastures of Bashan and Carmel and wilt the towering cedars of Lebanon (cf. Isa. 33:9); and Assyria, with her irrigation economy and her gods of the waters, is no match for this Lord who controls all water. Indeed, the Lord will use the floods to bring her chaos to an end (Nah. 2:6,8).
“The world cannot for a moment stand, except as it is sustained by the favour and goodness of God” (Calvin, III, 427), for its existence depends on the faithfulness of its Lord in preserving it. He has unmatchable power. The whirlwind is but the disturbance of air caused by his striding along. The clouds stretching across the sky are only the dust kicked up by his feet (v. 3cd). Mountains—the very pillars of the earth—quake before him (cf. Exod. 19:18; PSI 114:6-7) and the hills melt (cf. Micah 1:4). The earth heaves up (cf. Amos 8:8) and sinks (RSV: is laid waste) with all its inhabitants.
When God’s anger is aroused, therefore, when his patience and pleading have led to nought, when repentance and obedience are not forthcoming and his lordship is scorned or ignored, or when his covenant people have been endangered or themselves have thrown off his yoke, the Lord becomes a “keeper” of wrath (v. 2) who will no longer overlook such sin. He becomes the “Owner” of anger who “will by no means clear the guilty” (v. 3b).
The Apostle Paul echoes these thoughts of Nahum’s in his letter to the Roman church (Rom. 2:4-10), and Nahum’s message is quite consonant with that of the New Testament. Therefore, an age that believes God only forgives is deceiving itself. God can be aroused to wrath.
Then, asks Nahum, Who can stand before his wrath (RSV: indignation; v. 6)? Once again it is God’s incomparable power, in his anger, which the prophet has in view. But this time the figure is of fire—some have suggested molten lava—whose heat causes the moisture in the very rocks to expand and burst them asunder. Calvin emphasizes the suddenness of the destruction here, and he may be right. The fire-storm breaks out—whipped to fury, engulfing all before it—the fire-storm of the heat of God’s anger against sin.
Obviously, Nahum has in mind God’s zealous, jealous destruction of Assyria; and the words, “her place,” in verse 8 (RSV margin) probably should not be emended. They are the first hint in the book, other than the superscription, that its words are to be applied to the fall of Nineveh. Then, in verse 9, the enemy is personally addressed and told that no plans they make, no defenses they devise, no counsel they take will be sufficient to turn aside the utter destruction (full end) that is coming upon them. God will not have to return a second time. In his first onslaught against her, Nineveh will be totally destroyed. Though she seem dangerous—like tangled thorns that prick those who touch them (cf. II Sam. 23:6-7) or like a drunk man swaggering and boisterous-Assyria will nevertheless be burned up by the fire of God’s hot anger, like dry stubble consumed by a racing Harne (v. 10).
Nahum saves till last, moreover, the reason for God’s wrath against Assyria (v. 11):
From your midst came forth one who devised
against the Lord evil (ra‘ah),
who counseled worthlessness (belial; author’s trans.; cf. II Cor. 6:15).
The reference is probably not to one Assyrian conqueror but to all of them, and Nineveh’s sin, manifested in her cruelty toward subjugated nations, is finally sin against God. Because God is Lord of history, all national and international relations of earth’s societies are measured against his justice (cf. Amos 1:3-2:3). The Nuremburg trials following World War II brought Nazi leaders to judgment for their crimes against humanity; but crimes against humanity are, in the last instance, crimes against God and will be dealt with by him—a fact to which Pope Pius XII once gave vivid expression when he addressed a gathering of international leaders in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s painting of the Last Judgment.
Assyria had once been used by God as an instrument of his anger against his own people, according to Isaiah (10:5-6), but power corrupted Assyria, as it corrupts all nations who come to believe that they are in charge of their own destinies and self-sufficient in their own strength. Assyria had boasted:
“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding” (Isa. 10:13).
Assyria’s sin was that she forgot she was but an instrument in the hand of God:
Shall the axe vaunt itself over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? (Isa. 10:15).
Indeed, Assyria had even become defiant of the power of God—a defiance evidenced in the boast of the Assyrian commander, Rabshakeh, in the time of Hezekiah:
“Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, ‘The Lord will deliver us.’ Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” (Isa. 36:18-20).
The final sin of nations and individuals is the sin of pride—of believing that they can live their lives and conduct their affairs apart from any reference to the King of kings and Lord of lords. But God says to all human pride, as he said to his people in the time of Ezekiel, “… surely with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and with wrath poured out, I will be king over you” (Ezek. 20:33). God will be king over us, and it is for us to decide whether he will exercise his kingship in love toward us or in wrath.
Nahum incorporated this hymn into his prophecy with specific reference to Assyria and the impending fall of her capital, Nineveh, but this hymnic preface is also valid in every age. It is a testimony to God’s goodness, to his patient, forbearing, long-suffering slowness to anger, and his incomparable might; but it is also a testimony to the fact that the Lord will never pass over human wrong.
The church has therefore sometimes used Nahum eschatologically to refer to the final judgment. For example, after commenting on the first five verses of Nahum, John Calvin prayed:
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou settest before us here as in a mirror how dreadful thy wrath is, we may be humbled before thee, and of our own-selves cast ourselves down, … and be cleansed from our vices, until we shall at length appear in confidence before thee, and be gathered among thy children, that we may enjoy the eternal inheritance of thy heavenly kingdom, which has been obtained for us by the blood of thy Son. Amen (III, 427-28).
But Nahum can also be used to remind individuals and church that God levels his judgments against sin throughout the course of history: Evil Nineveh was destroyed.
Indeed, that is the function of Nahum for us today: It is an urgent call to repentance—a call to condemn ourselves for our pride and crimes against God, to cast ourselves on his patient mercy, and to take refuge in his goodness, finally made flesh for us in Jesus Christ. We stand under sentence, and God will by no means clear the gtlilty. But God is slow—slow to carry out the sentence—and does not wish that we should perish.