I write a weekly bible study for the Jesus Army. (The bible chapters for each week roll round on a rota, covering the whole bible every seven years or so – the New Testament, being shorter, is completed more like every three years).
What would you write when faced with Nahum chapter 3, as I was this morning? No offence to Nahum, I ought to say, as I may well meet him one day on some golden street up yonder. He had a job to do. And yet…
I’m not at ease with fire and judgement, and I’m skittish about Christians who are. It is clear that judgement, yes even eternal judgement (it’s a hell of subject) are very biblical. A God who isn’t Judge is not the God of the bible. But unlike that feisty early church theologian, Tertullian, I can’t rub my hands at the thought of sinners roasting.
To be clear, Nahum chapter 3 is not about hell. But it is about the destruction of a vast metropolis and everyone who lives in it. Nineveh’s evil, violence and oppression have overspilled the measure, and God says ‘Enough’. Time’s up. Cue fire and brimstone.
‘Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?’ asked Abraham when faced with a similar city-becomes-bonfire scenario. And I can get where nervous old Abe’s coming from on this. Slightly worried, seeking reassurance that all the destruction is – well – right.
It was then that I noticed that the book of Nahum ends with a question. Which is unusual in the bible. In fact, a quick check confirmed there’s only one other book in the bible that ends with a question: Nahum’s prequel, Jonah.
Which got me thinking about those two questions: one – Nahum's – about the human cry for justice (and God’s answer), the other – Jonah's – about human incomprehension of mercy (and God’s answer). And this is what I wrote. Hope it helps you, like it helped me, to understand just a little more about God – His great passion for justice, and His massive heart of mercy.
'Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder… Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord' (v.1, 5). This last chapter of Nahum paints a dramatic picture of the destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria (an empire whose violence oppressed the entire ancient world). After eighteen verses detailing destruction, the book ends with a question: 'All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?' (v.19) The implied answer is ‘nobody’; nobody has escaped Nineveh’s evil, and therefore everyone rejoices at her destruction.
There is only one other book in the bible that ends with a question – the ‘prequel’ to this one: Jonah. Like Nahum, Jonah was told by God to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction (Jon.1:1). But in Jonah’s day the Ninevites repented and were spared (Jon.3:4-5). Jonah’s response to God’s mercy was to sulk, and the question that ends the book of Jonah is from God: 'Should not I pity Nineveh?' (Jon. 4:11). The implied answer is, of course, ‘Yes’.
Nahum’s question reveals human thirst for justice, for an end to oppression. God is not unmoved by this heartcry: He will bring judgement and restore justice. Yet we must hear Nahum’s message with Jonah’s in mind, too: God’s mercy is bigger and wider than our small human hearts expect. The judge of all the earth will do what is right (Gen.18:25); and in the end mercy will triumph over even judgement (Jas.2:13).
The questions such a passage make me ask myself are: what injustices do I long to see ended? Am I working towards that myself in my words, actions, prayers? And where might I need to have a bigger heart, and show more mercy?