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The Burden of Nineveh
There is a sense in which every prophet must make a burden of his work. If he himself had to do it all it would be nothing but burden. Instead of idealising the word, making it poetical, bringing up before the eye of the mind some stalwart pilgrim carrying his easy load upon his shoulder, think of it as a man whose heart is sore because of the wickedness of the people, whose sleep is taken away from him because night is turned into a day of wickedness and wrath. Think of a man who has more to say than he can utter, whose tongue cannot keep pace with his heart because his heart is full of the thunder and lightning of judgment, and full of the music and pathos of gospel, and would utter itself incoherently, paradoxically, so that men not versed in this species of eloquence would say, What doth this babbler exclaim? for now he thunders, and now he whispers, and now he storms like a whirlwind, and now he cries like a brokenhearted mother. What would he be at? Yet through all this whirl and tumult and conflict must men come before they can understand what the old prophets had to do in the name and strength of God.
Nahum writes a book. It was a curious thing to do in those days. It was a book of a vision, and therefore likely to be quite misunderstood; for who has eyes that can see visions of the shadowy aerial kind? Who but Moses could have seen the cloud, histrionically treated, shaped into tabernacle and sanctuary and coming temple, as the Lord took handfuls of cloud and scattered them about in apocalyptic vision, so that the meek heart could see the new architecture? Only a visionist can read visions. There are some men who ought never to attempt to read poetry, because they kill it. They do not know that they are killing it, but their slaughter is none the less complete. There are persons who ought not to read the lighter kinds of literature, say even comedy itself, because they were born to live at the graveside, and never have caught a laugh on the wing. Only those who have the inspired heart can read the prophets, either major or minor, and understand what they are about, not understand what they are merely saying, but understand what they are meaning. There is a common drift in all the prophecies, a set, a tendency in this great biblical movement. Unless you comprehend that tendency or movement you will be lost in the details of the dislocated parts. The Bible reveals God: now let all the rest fall into proper adjustment under the influence of that dominant and ennobling thought. How will Nahum talk about God? He will talk about God in his own way. If every man would do that we should have a new and grand theology, because we should have as many theologies as there are human beings reverently engaged in the profound study of God. Every man sees his own aspect of the divine Being; every man catches his own particular view of the Cross: hence a good deal of the obstinacy that is found in theological controversy and religious disputation. A man cannot depersonalise himself, nor need he; what he wants to do is to understand that every other man is also a student of the same mystery, and is also blessed with some portion of the Spirit without whom there is no life, without whom there can be no music in the soul. Hear Nahum:
"God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies" ( Nah 1:2 ).
That was true for the day. The prophecies of Nahum, however, do not consist of one verse. The prophet will see another aspect presently, but he was true to the revelation as it passed before him. It is poor preaching that harps upon the words, "God is love"; because it does not take in the whole aspect of a manifold revelation. Yet it does take in every aspect if we understood the meaning of the word "God," and the meaning of the word "love." Love is not softness, moral indifference, spiritual turpitude, a sentiment that buys itself off from service by offering copious tears; love is law, love is righteousness, love is anger. Love can be hot as unquenchable fire. Our God is a consuming fire: God is love. Here is a man who says, "God is jealous"; so he was at that moment. "The Lord revengeth"; so he was doing when Nahum wrote. We want the real experience of men: What do you see of God? How does the vision appear to you? Put it all down, day by day, for the bread of the soul, as well as the bread of the body, is a daily donation of God. You need not struggle to reconcile yesterday with to-day: the harmony of things does not lie under your fingers; it is no trick wrought out by the cunning of man's hand: the solidarity, the unity, the music of the whole must be left to the sovereignty of the sovereign God. You will not be out of harmony with your age if you write in your book: God burns; God is an unquenchable fire; God scorches men. Put it down; tomorrow you shall write otherwise.
Nahum did; said he: "The Lord is slow to anger." What, the same God that in the second verse was jealous, furious, revenging, reserving wrath for his enemies? Yes. Herein is the mystery of the total personality. "The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked." He does not drop into mere sentiment. Nahum carries his law with him. Even when he says God is slow to anger he admits the anger, and the slowness to it may be its assurance and its completeness in the latter end. There are those who speak much of the God of nature. There are now persons who are nature worshippers. They generally confine their services to a particular condition of the atmosphere. Their worship is climatic and barometric. They are great on sunny Sabbath mornings. When the churchgoer meets them and says, "Where have you been this morning?" they say, "In the temple of nature, hearing the lark or the thrush; watching the bees or the butterflies; inhaling the soft health-laden breeze. A beautiful church is nature." All that is mere sound, not worth the name of fury, yet joining the poet again when he says, "Like an idiot's tale." There is no such God of nature. The God of nature he is described by the prophet Nahum just as he is:
"The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea, and maketh it dry, and drieth up all the rivers: Bashan languisheth, and Carmel, and the flower of Lebanon languisheth. The mountains quake at him, and the hills melt, and the earth is burned at his presence, yea, the world, and all that dwell therein" ( Nah 1:3-5 ).
That is the God of nature. Where are his worshippers now? Do you find them standing on the mountain-top, drenched with rain, worshipping in the beautiful temple of Nature? Never. By arrangement and of set purpose they may have been caught in a tempest, but they never braved it in order to worship the God of nature. They love to hear morning worship the lark; evening worship the nightingale; delightful service the south-blowing breeze, the fragrant air. Away with such mockery if you call that the God of nature! He is God of nature also when he thunders and lightens, and shakes the mountains and melts the rocks. Where are you, then, you lovers of the lark, and devotees of the nightingale, where are you then? You speak of the God of nature as if he were the leading florist of the universe, as if he were the chief gardener who had laid out all his walls and terraces and parterres for your benefit. The God of nature can be as furious as the God of the Church, or the God of the inner and spiritual temple. The Lord writes his whole signature upon the volume of nature. On that volume he has written: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." Our God is a consuming fire: the volcano is the inkhorn in which he dips his pen that he may write his fury, his grandeur, and his sensitive majesty. We hold that the God of nature is the God of the Bible, and that the God of nature properly and fully interpreted is just as many-sided as is the God of revelation; and we protest against the squashy, useless, pithless sentimentality that goes out on Sunday morning because the lark is singing, and because the wind is in the south. That is the God of one side of nature; but the God of nature is as complex as is the God of Nahum, set forth in the second and third and following verses of his prophecy.
"Who can stand before his indignation?" One might imagine that all this is found only in the Church; this is the ideal or poetic view of God; this is theology in blank verse; this is the dream of a village mind; the high uplifting of one who has been caught suddenly in a divine afflatus, and who speaks that which he does not understand. Yet all that is in the Bible is written in nature, in germ, in hint, in outline, in dim symbol, if we had the eye that could read such typology. And do those who attend what is specifically called the Church care nothing for nature? Contrariwise, they love it; it is the Christian poet that has made the flower blush with subtlest, and just flattery; it is the Christian astronomer that has made night blush by praising her reverently to her face. The Christian will find flowers where atheism cannot find them. Christian prophecy has the faculty of causing stones to rise up as children unto Abraham; Christian interpretation does not read things into divine providence, but reads them out of it, saying always, We have not got the whole secret of this root, there is more beauty in it, and with more sunshine we shall get it all. History is the root out of which God grows flowers and wheat, great trees and flowerets that little children may gather with their tiny hands. We protest against the division of the God of nature and the God of grace, the God of nature and the God of revelation, as if only atheists or agnostics had to do with the God of nature, whilst Christians were worshipping some totally distinct being. Christians claim both. Nature and revelation are God in two volumes. Is he a wise reader who, having been entranced in the first volume of the drama, simply declines to read the second? What shall we say of his entrancement when he flushes with the purple of wonder, and expands under the enthusiasm of delighted gratitude, because he has read the first volume, but says he will have nothing to do with the volume that succeeds it? Such indifference to the succeeding volume throws suspicion upon the reality of his admiration when he offers that mockery to volume one. In Nahum you find the God of the book and the God of nature, the God of moral attributes and the God of majestic revelation, in the forms, the palpitations, and the changing colours of this dissolving scene.
Nahum is strong in contrasts. Hear him: "The Lord is good" what! the Lord who is jealous? "a stronghold in the day of trouble" what! the God who is "furious"? Yes. Now the contrast: "But with an overrunning flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue his enemies." Then it is a division of character. "He knoweth them that trust in him"; that is character: "and darkness shall pursue his enemies"; that is character. It is character that is elected, predestinated; it is character that is doomed from all eternity. It is one of two things: a savour of life unto life, or a savour of death unto death; a trusting soul, or a hostile spirit. In the one case the Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble when nobody else wants you; in the other it is night sevenfold, following like an infinite beast of prey, the enemy of righteousness and light, truth and love. We have advanced nothing beyond this position taken up by the prophet The God of the New Testament is as jealous as the God of the Old Testament, and the God revealed by our blessed and only Saviour Christ Jesus is as loving in the Old Testament as in the New. Hebrew seems better made for expressing tenderness than Greek; Hebrew can fondle the reader, embrace him; Hebrew can whisper better than Greek can. Greek has its own music, but not that rich, round, deep, mellow music that follows the soul through the darkness, yea, through the valley of the shadow of death: "Like as a father pitieth"; "The Lord is my shepherd"; "The Lord is very pitiful": these are Hebrew whispers, and there is nothing in New Testament music other than in quality. The New Testament has its own accent and individualism, but the New Testament represents the same God as the Old Testament; Nahum and Paul discourse concerning the same attributes. If any man therefore shall be in the seventh verse of Nahum he will be saying, The Lord is good; I know it; he has dried my tears, he has directed my steps, he has held me up in all my goings; though I have fallen I have not been utterly cast down. He is a stronghold in the day of trouble; when my nearest, dearest friend did not know me the Lord received me, and when my father and my mother forsook me, then the Lord took me up, and I have had a habitation in his pavilion all my life. If another man should be in the eighth verse he will discourse of the same God in other terms, calling him an overrunning flood, calling him an infinite aggregation of darkness. The explanation will not be found in the variety of poetic conception, but in the consistence of spiritual character. God is to us what we are to God; to the froward he will show himself froward; to the humble he will come with that sweeping condescension as graceful as it is noiseless, an insinuation not a patronage.
Then Nahum will not let the enemy alone. He says: "For while they be folden together as thorns... they shall be devoured as stubble fully dry." Here he is referring to the intricacies of sin, "folden together as thorns," so interwrapped and intervolved that it is simply impossible to perform the task of unravelment. Will the Lord pick with patient fingers all the intertwinings of these intricate perplexities? No. What will he do with them? Burn them! We had not thought of that: we had looked at the intricacy, the difficulty, the manifold perplexity, and said, Surely God's own patience cannot overtake this task; we wondered how God would come out of a difficulty so obvious and so complete: we had forgotten the fire. There could be no universe without fire; there could be no life without fire. Blood is fire; life is fire controlled, inspired, set to work by a sovereign agency. We had forgotten hell. It is a poor ministry that has no perdition in it. It may be a popular ministry. There have been persons who would not go to church because they would not hear the minister pronouncing the punishment or wrath of God against evildoing. They would go to hear the lark. That lark will ruin them. They have got hold of the wrong meaning of that bird's note. There is not a lark in the whole cage of the firmament that is not praising God. But some persons can only take one view of the singing bird. If that bird could break the harmonies of the universe, the universe would soon find a grave for it Nothing that mars the music can live long; only that which swells the infinite cadence is permitted to enjoy immortality. You have laid cunning schemes; you have made the nights overlap one another; you have doubled back on your own journey so that the detective shall not pursue you; you have laid your plan so skilfully and subtly as to defy detection; you have made a mark here and left a signature there, and you have overturned all natural sequences, and so gone back upon yourself as to roll your life together into a perplexity. Now, say you, what will God do with me? Burn you! You had better know it. But there is one thing you can do which will prevent the burning; you can turn and live "Turn ye, turn ye! Why will ye die?" It is not God burning as an act of vengeance; it is the universe taking up God's purpose and applying it, and that purpose is that all evil shall be burned. No house can do without its fire, and God's own voice cannot do without its flame searching, penetrating, disinfecting, everlasting. This is right, this is loving. It is not love that permits the pestilence to wreak under the child's throat; it is not love that says, The miasma is rising thickly, and the dear child is in its chamber sleeping; open the window, let the miasma have full play. I love my child, and therefore I cannot interfere with the play and scope of this miasmatic vapour. Love says, Burn it, or the child may be killed.
Nahum represents what we have often forgotten, namely, that God controls and directs all history.
"And the Lord hath given a commandment concerning thee, that no more of thy name be sown: out of the house of thy gods will I cut off the graven image and the molten image: I will make thy grave; for thou art vile" ( Nah 1:14 ).
That is how history is made. We wonder how certain houses have run to nothing. God did it We have said, Where are the great and the mighty who ruled the civilisation of gone ages? The Lord said, "No more of thy name shall be sown": that seed is done, the crop must be changed. It is thus that God keeps the fields of life going; it is thus that God intermixes the growths of civilisation and progress, so that we belong to one another. The great man has a club foot. He did not want it. No: but that connects him with a certain part of his ancestry that he ought not to forget. The poor man is disabled and humiliated and racked with pain; true: but in intervals he writes for immortality; his thoughts are birds that sing for evermore. He did not want to have that ailing, aching, rheumatic, staggering frame; but God reminds him that he is aristocratically descended by the mind. How often that lineage is forgotten! Is a man descended from some duke who murdered men? Then his remotest scion is supposed to be a gentleman. But is there no lineage coming down from Isaiah and Ezekiel, from the poets, the thinkers, the leaders of the world's highest thought? On one side of your nature you are as plebeian as the clods you plough; on the other, by your power of prayer you are taken into the masonry of the angels, by your gift of thought you have a chief seat in the assembly of the immortals, by a tender soothing sympathy you are invited to sit with Christ on his throne. There are two lineages: the lineage of the bones, which may come to much or nothing as the case may be; and the lineage of the soul, aristocratic as God. We cannot be engrafted into the lower lineage, but, blessed be that Cross that makes Calvary the pivot of the universe, blessed be that Cross that makes heaven possible to the worst, each of us may be taken into the household of God, may be enfranchised in the Jerusalem that is above, may be set among the stars that shall go out no more for ever. To declare this is to preach the everlasting gospel.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nahum 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany