Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A hell of a chapter

Fire and brimstoneFaced with nineteen verses of fire and damnation, I wasn’t sure what to write.

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?


Jeffrey O'Rourke said...

I read your post and I am troubled by what you say, or maybe how you say it.
First, it is great that you are working through the entire Bible and it is good that you said something about Nahum 3.
Ah, but what you said!
"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…"
You are suggesting that Nahum somehow messed up in what he prophesied/wrote. If Nahum wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, there are no "Ifs ands or buts" about it. Nahum was called by God and spoke what God gave him to speak.

Then you wrote:
"I’m not at ease with fire and judgement, and I’m skittish about Christians who are." What do you mean, You are not at ease with fire and judgment?? You are the teacher and you are saying you have some problems accepting what God says? You should say, "This may make you uncomfortable but..." If you are not sure about or at ease with judgment, then your hearers will not only be not at ease with it, they will reject it.
Judgment was not only a theme of the OT prophets (at this rate you will not be at ease with any of them), it is fully a part of the NT. It is part of the Gospel. Jesus. Paul. Peter. John. All speak fully and freely of judgment to come and the wrath of God.

You asked:
"What would you write when faced with Nahum chapter 3, as I was this morning?"
You speak of the character of God, of which wrath, anger, justice, holiness and judgment are a part.
You explain the why of this judgment - this was not because God is peevish, He is holy and righteous. These were a people who had had mercy extended to them and turned even more wicked.
You point out that God is longsuffering - he let them go on in sin for a while before this.
You point out that God has a plan for nations.
You remind the reader of all this and include a warning to flee from the wrath to come.
You remind the reader who has believed that he has been delivered from the wrath to come.
What you don't do is question Nahum (I suppose he had a job to do yet...) and raise doubts about the whole matter of judgment (I am not at ease with fire and judgment...)
We need strong preaching that emphasizes the righteousness and holiness of God, that calls people from sin because of the judgment of God. We need preachers who remind their hearers they need to flee the wrath of God, because as sure as the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
I will stop. I have been troubled about this all night and felt I had to correspond with you. God be with you.
Jeffrey O'Rourke

James said...

Thanks for taking time to write so lengthy a comment, Jeffrey. I don't think we are on the same page on this and so may have to agree to disagree. But I ought to clarify my point - I wasn't saying that judgement isn't biblical (in fact, I say that it is), but that I'm unhappy with a Christian message that makes it the main thing - or worse seems to take delight in the punishment of others (I reference Tertullian, but there are plenty of contemporary examples, too). This, it seems to me, is not the humility and mercy we see in Jesus.