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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

- Nahum

by Charles John Ellicott





I. The Author.—This composition gives us absolutely no information about its author beyond the fact that he styled himself “Nahum the Elkoshite.” As it is not known where “Elkosh” is, and it is not impossible that “Nahum,” “comforter,” is a nom de plume, the personality of this prophet is as shadowy as those of Obadiah and Malachi. His date can only be conjectured from his allusions to political events (vide infra). If “Nahum” be regarded as a pseudonym, the book will be one of comfort to Israel, in that it treats of the overthrow of the notoriously oppressive Assyrian power. Apostolic titles such as “Peter” and “Barnabas” supply an analogue, and some have supposed that “Malachi,” “my messenger,” is also a title adopted for a special prophetic mission. The symbolical names in Isaiah 8:3-4; Hosea 1:3; Hosea 1:7, may also be instanced. But the addition of the second designation, “the Elkoshite,” tells against the theory that “Nahum” is an assumed appellation. It is natural to interpret the whole title on the analogy of “Elijah the Tishbite,” making Nahum the real name of the man, Elkosh that of his abode or birthplace.

Elkosh remains to be discovered. Jerome’s guide identified it with Elcesi, “a little village in Galilee, small, indeed, and scarcely indicating by its ruins the traces of ancient buildings” (Jerome, Comm. on Nah. I., 1). Eusebius mentions Ἐλκεσέ as a Palestinian town “whence was Nahum the Elkesæan,” but does not say in what part it lay. Cyril of Alexandria merely says it was somewhere in the country of the Jews. On the other hand, certain modern writers have moved Elkosh altogether away from Jewish territory, and identified it with Alcush, a village within two days’ journey of Mosul, where the grave of the prophet is exhibited. This site is favoured chiefly because it brings Nahum close to the scene of the catastrophe which he so graphically describes. It appeared impossible that Nahum could see in a vision the future fall of Nineveh. Date and locality were therefore shifted till the seer of Israel became a historian living in Assyria. The choice of this village Alcush is scarcely creditable to the critical acumen of this school of expositors. There is absolutely nothing to identify Nahum with the place save the pretended tomb, and this has no more claim to genuineness than the tombs of Jephthah, Jonah, and Obadiah in neighbouring localities. “The house containing the tomb,” writes Mr. Layard, “is a modern building.” Not till the sixteenth century was the place even mentioned in connection with the prophet Nahum. The legend doubtless rests on no more substantial basis than a similarity of sound. It may be added that there is every reason to regard the name Elkosh as of Hebrew derivation (see Fürst, Lexic). The place doubtless lay within the borders of the Holy Land, but it is impossible to determine its situation more precisely.

II. Occasion of Writing.—The object of this composition is sufficiently shown us in the opening words of Nahum 1:0 : “The burden of [or sentence against] Nineveh.” Nahum treats of the downfall of the Assyrian empire, consequent on the capture of its metropolis, Nineveh. In Nahum 1:0 the prophet’s attention appears to be fixed mainly on the last Assyrian invasion of Judæa—that which resulted in the destruction of Sennacherib’s host recorded in 2 Kings 19:0. This catastrophe had doubtless already taken place. It is used by the seer as an earnest of a yet more momentous future. Sennacherib’s disaster was the first act in a tragedy of which the dénoûment lay yet in the womb of time, discernible only to God and God’s inspired prophets. The “vision” of Nahum reveals this unknown issue in chapters 2 and 3. Nineveh, the Assyrian metropolis, the centre of oppression, the “bloody city,” is to fall before besiegers; her population to be led away captive, her site to remain “empty, void, and waste.” We attribute Nahum’s knowledge of this catastrophe, which obviously identifies itself with the destruction of Nineveh by the Medes and Babylonians (B.C. 625), to Divine inspiration. The event is certainly future. It is not past, not even immediately impending. To prove even the possibility of its happening, the prophet is forced to instance the sack of another mighty city, “populous No” (Nahum 3:8-11). The writer, moreover, claims to be giving an account of a “vision” (Nahum 1:1). Were he limited to the events of the past or the present, the claim would be an impertinence, the whole composition robbed of its significance. None will refuse to see predictive inspiration here, save those who start on the assumption that this form of Divine communication is impossible, and that all such prophets as Nahum are mere historians.

For those who are not hampered by this theological prejudice, Nahum’s date will be in the period preceding the catastrophe; but it can only be fixed approximately. He writes to foretell the fall of Nineveh; therefore, before B.C. 625. His prophecy is quoted by Zephaniah, therefore it was probably uttered some years before B.C. 630 (see Zephaniah, Introduction, II.). He writes, instancing the sack of Thebes; therefore, we believe, not before B.C. 670. perhaps not before B.C. 665[24] (see Nahum 3:8-10, Notes). His composition may be assigned to any year between B.C. 665 and B.C. 635.

[24] Another terminus in the backward direction is the death of Sennacherib, to which Nahum refers in Nahum 1:14 (see Note). This event occurred in B.C. 680.

The great historical event anticipated by Nahum’s vision must now be noticed. The Assyrians had been the leading power in Upper Asia for upwards of five hundred years. The original abode of this great tribe appears to have been the flat alluvial plain towards the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates. From this region Assyrian hordes are found migrating northwards as early as B.C. 1600. The colonists were probably subjugated for awhile by the Babylonians, but before B.C. 1550 had established a monarchy of their own. This gradually rose to equal rank with that of Babylon. Tiglathi-Nin (B.C. 1270) styles himself the “conqueror of Babylonia.” It is certain, however, that the rival empire was not effectually weakened till the time of Sargon (B.C. 721), and it appears that nearly every Assyrian monarch engaged in expeditions against Babylonia. The Assyrian empire was at its zenith under Sennacherib (B.C. 704), who records successful campaigns against Babylonia, Susiana, Egypt, Syria, Judæa, and Cilicia, and who is even more eminent as a builder and patron of art than as a conqueror. It would perhaps have been in stricter accordance with the ground-plan of Nahum’s prophecy if the decline of the Assyrian power had begun from the time when Sennacherib’s army was annihilated before Jerusalem. Josephus states that this was the case. Esar-Haddon’s reign, however, was scarcely, if at all, less glorious than that of Sennacherib; and Asshur-bani-pal is described as “a warrior more enterprising and more powerful than any of his predecessors” (Five Great Monarchies, ii. 493). The crash came in the time of this king’s unwar-like successor, Asshur-emid-ilin, called by the Greek historians, Saracus. Somewhere about the thirteenth year of this reign, the Medes rose in arms, and invaded Assyria. They were repulsed with the loss of their leader and of many soldiers. Their next king, Cyaxares, was interrupted in his preparations for another attack by an invasion of Scythian hordes, who inflicted great damage, both on Media and Assyria. He succeeded in expelling these intruders, and again marched against Nineveh. He was joined by the Susianians and by a faithless Assyrian dependent, Nabo-polassar, king of Babylon. The siege, according to Ctesias, lasted three years. It may well be believed that a city 22½ miles in circumference (Xenophon, Anab. Iii. 4), with walls 100 feet high, wide enough to admit three chariots abreast, with towers, moreover, 1,200 in number, and each 200 feet high (Diod. Sic. ii. 3), would defy the operations of troops who had hitherto had little experience in siegework. An important victory was, however, gained at a time when the Assyrian host was celebrating its triumph in revelry. Saracus now resigned the chief command to his brother-in-law, Salæmenes, who experienced another disastrous defeat. The city, however, continued uninjured apparently, until the spring of the third year. Then, according to Ctesias (Diod. Sic. ii. 27), a new power appeared on the side of the besiegers. Heavy rains had fallen and increased the volume of the river. An inundation ensued, which carried away a considerable part of the fortifications (see Nahum 2:6, Note, and comp. Nahum 1:8). Saracus saw in the catastrophe the fulfilment of an oracle. He set fire to his citadel, and perished with his concubines and eunuchs in the flames. The enemy entered unopposed, “through the broken part of the wall,” and carried off an immense booty to Babylon and Ecbatana.

Ctesias is often untrustworthy and inaccurate; but it is quite credible that his account of the fall of Nineveh is substantially correct.” His account,” to borrow the words of Dr. Pusey, “as it is in exact conformity with the obvious meaning of the prophecy of Nahum, so it solves a real difficulty, how Nineveh, so defended, could have fallen.” Another remarkable coincidence between the prophecy of Nahum and the historical fact has been noticed by the same commentator. The usual sequel to the capture and sack of a city was not its destruction, but its repeopling. The captors of Nineveh proceeded to destroy it with fire, and it remained uninhabited. The fragments disinterred by excavations at the palaces of Kouyuujik, Khorsabad, and Nimroud bear the marks of this conflagration (comp. Nahum 2:13; Nahum 3:13; Nahum 3:15). Nineveh remained as Nahum had predicted, “a desolation,” “empty and void, and waste” (Nahum 1:8; Nahum 2:10). Xenophon saw its walls, and went away with a story that “the Medes inhabited it formerly” (Anab. iii. 12). Alexander marched by, “not knowing that a world empire like that which he gave his life to found was buried under his feet” (Pusey). In the second century A.D. Lucian writes, “Nineveh has perished, and there is no trace left where it once was.” (Comp. Nahum 3:7, seq., and Zephaniah 2:13, seq.)

III. Contents.—The chief divisions of Nahum’s composition appear to be these:—(a) Nahum 1:2-8, Jehovah’s very character is a guarantee that He will. right the oppressed faithful, and annihilate their enemies; (b) Nahum 1:9-15, the bootless expedition of Sennacherib is portrayed, chiefly with reference to the relief his overthrow afforded Israel, and his own miserable end; (c) Nahum 2:1—end, the siege of Nineveh and its issue—viz., the extinction of the ravening oppressor; (d) Nahum 3:1—end, a more extended statement of the cause of this catastrophe, and the utter ruin thereby effected.

IV. Character and style.—Nahum’s composition is descriptive rather than hortatory. Nahum 1:2-8 includes all the ethical or theological teaching of this prophet, and even here picturesque portraiture predominates. The rest of the book presents a series of historical scenes; all of which may be regarded as illustrating the great religious principles laid down in the opening verses. These scenes reveal in their portraiture the master-hand of a true poet. In poetic ability, indeed, Nahum ranks high among the prophets. His chief excellence consists in word-painting of forcible terseness. Nahum 2:11-13; Nahum 3:16-17 are the only places where a figure is expanded. The usual tendency is to compress each thought into the smallest possible compass. The description of the siege in Nahum 2:3-10 is a very model of this kind of sententious eloquence. In his diction Nahum is markedly original. He abounds in peculiarities of expression. These may perhaps be connected with a provincial idiom, but they cannot be attributed to any foreign source. Here and there a resemblance to Joel, Isaiah, and the Psalms perhaps argues indebtedness to earlier authors. He is himself often imitated by Jeremiah. (Comp. Nahum 1:13, Jeremiah 30:8; Nahum 3:5, Jeremiah 13:22; Nahum 3:13, Jeremiah 50:37; Jeremiah 51:30; Nahum 3:19, Jeremiah 10:19, and see Jeremiah 51:0 passim.) It has been said that Nahum should be read as a supplement to the Book of Jonah. The mission of both prophets concerned Nineveh. The one composition describes the remission of Divine punishment on this offending city, and the other its execution, Nahum 1:3 being a kind of connecting-link between the two phases of God’s character—His longsuffering and His justice. In point of style and diction, however, no two prophetic books are more unlike. The nature of Nahum’s subject precludes any but the most meagre allusion to his own country, and we learn nothing with regard to the Jewish politics of the time. Save by way of type—the destruction of the oppressive world power figuring the victory of the Church over the world—there is nothing in the book that bears on the Christian dispensation.

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