the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
The Biblical Illustrator The Biblical Illustrator
by Editor - Joseph Exell
There are two sides to the character of God
two sides which yet are perfectly consistent and harmonious. At times He shows Himself most gentle and compassionate, ready to pardon wrong doing, willing to admit the wrong-doer to His own fellowship and favour. At other times He is stern in His justice, inflicting punishment upon evil, visiting the crimes of men with the tribulation and anguish which are their due. There is no contradiction, as I have said, between these perfections of God. He is stable, consistent, immutable, although now He speaks in the thunder and the mighty rushing wind, and now in the still, small voice. For, first of all, Be cannot but set differently toward different classes of men--different moods and conditions of soul To the penitent heart that weeps bitterly over its sin, to the faithful servant who keeps well his Master’s trust, He must of necessity reveal His mercy and love; it is not in His nature to shut such as these out from His favour. But to souls that are proud and wilful and wedded to their iniquity, what can God be but just and severe and terrible, a consuming fire, a hammer to break the flinty rook in pieces! He would forfeit His uprightness were He to deal leniently with these. And then, also, so far from mercy and judgment being irreconcilable the one with the other, there are seasons when the infliction of judgment is indeed the truest mercy. His own children will breathe more freely once their oppressor and antagonist is away; weak and yielding souls will be prevented from surrendering themselves to His will; and the world will be lifted up to a higher level. Very frequently mercy and justice are in reality synonymous terms. Such thoughts as these are awakened within us when we open this Book of Nahum. It is not a book which deals either with Israel or with Judah. It has no direct reference to the chosen people. It is concerned from first to last with the fate of Nineveh, the proud capital of Assyria. Jonah, the son of Amittai, had been sent thither by God about two hundred years before Nahum’s time. And the Assyrian monarch and people of Jonah’s day had opened their hearts to hear God’s Word and to acknowledge His presence and authority. Seeing their sorrow and rejoicing at its manifestation, He had passed from the fierceness of His anger. But their penitence was of short duration. Soon they had grown haughty and sin-loving and cruel again. And God could bear with their tyranny and evil no longer. He bade His servant Nahum prophesy their speedy destruction. Jonah had been His messenger of grace to Assyria; Nahum is His messenger of judgment.
I. It is exceedingly little that we know of the personal history of this prophet. To most of us he is simply a voice crying in the desert; we remember him by his words alone. But I think it is possible for us to fashion for ourselves some authentic picture of the man and his surroundings. There has long been debate as to the locality of his birth. “Nahum the Elkoshite,” he is described in the opening of the book; but it is hard to decide what meaning should be attached to the epithet. The Christian father Jerome speaks of a village called Elkesai which lay in Galilee, and tells us that a few relics of it were pointed out to him by a dweller in the district. Such a testimony is undoubtedly possessed of considerable value, for Jerome had his home for a great part of his life in Palestine, and was well acquainted with its villages and towns. And some expositors have found a confirmation of the theory that Nahum was a Galilean, born and brought up in the northern parts of the Holy Land, in another name which is familiar to us in connection with the history of One greater than the prophet--the name Capernaum. For Capernaum means “the village or hamlet of Nahum”; and who more likely to give it its distinctive title, it has been asked, than the ancient servant of God who proclaimed the downfall of his people’s enemies? It would be pleasant, indeed, to imagine the prophet moving about the very scenes which were afterwards to be hallowed by the presence of Christ; walking in prayer and meditation by the shore of the lake which the Saviour knew so well; spending the most of his days in those holy fields which six hundred years later were trodden by the Son of God. But however attractive such a theory may be, I cannot but incline to the other solution which has been suggested for the phrase, “The Elkoshite.” Travellers in the East tell us of a village called Alkush (Sir A. H. Layard describes this village and the supposed tomb of Nahum, in his Nineveh and Babylon) not far from Mosul, away in what was ancient Assyria, where the tomb of Nahum is pointed out at this day. The tomb is no doubt an erection comparatively modern; but at least it bears witness to the existence of an older belief that here, in the land of the alien and the oppressor, God’s prophet had lived and died. And there is that in the character of the prophecy which strengthens our conviction that Nahum was himself an exile in Assyria. Its descriptions are so graphic and vivid, so apparently painted from the life, that we can scarcely escape the conclusion that the writer is recounting what his own eyes have seen and his own ears have heard. He seems to have dwelt in the very heart of the country against which he proclaimed God’s judgment. It is true that this clear and definite knowledge of Nineveh and its inhabitants may have been supernaturally imparted to the prophet. But that is far from likely. For the most part, the prophets of the Lord deal with those sights and sounds, those persons and events, by which they are themselves surrounded. They read to men the lessons of warning or of comfort which the Holy Ghost enables them to gather in that world in which they live and move and have their being. Let us think of Nahum, therefore, as the son of a Hebrew family that had been carried captive to Assyria when the kingdom of the ten tribes was broken and destroyed. He was born among strangers who were harsh and cruel; but at home he breathed an atmosphere of love. For his name means “consolation”; and probably it describes the comfort which the child brought with him to the hearts of his parents. Outside, in the alien territory where they were forced to stay, they saw only high-handed wrong-doing and daily sin; but within the walls of their dwelling they had what compensated them for the oppressor’s wrong and the proud man’s contumely; they were cheered and strengthened as they looked on the boy whom God had sent them, and offered up their prayers for him, and hoped that he might yet do great things for his injured and afflicted people. When Nahum grew up to manhood he showed that he had the heart of a patriot throbbing within him. He loved and remembered the land of his ancestors. Bashan and Carmel and Lebanon were familiar names to him (Nahum 1:4), even although he had never looked on them with the bodily eye. And, in proportion as he took delight in that sweet and pleasant soil from which he and his had been banished, he loathed the tyranny and the manifold evil of the heathen who had triumphed over God’s heritage. He saw before him the splendour of Nineveh, and its ferocity and its luxury and its sensuality, and he hated it with a righteous hatred. The Latin satirist says that it is indignation which makes a man a poet; and Nahum’s exultant and pitiless words were prompted by his indignation against the empire which had robbed his fatherland of peace and prosperity and life itself. But if these were dark and awful words for the Assyrian, they were bright and soothing for the Israelite. They assured him of the opening of the prison-house and the dawning of a better day. He was indeed a poet--this old Hebrew. Many have remarked how terse and vigorous, how forcible and vivid and fervent, his phrases are. Very bitter and relentless he is towards his enemies; but we must remember that they were the enemies of God as well as his own, and that his was a religious enthusiasm. There is music of an inspiring and triumphant sort in all that he utters--music like that of the trumpet which calls to battle and victory. He depicts the fall of Nineveh as though he actually beheld it. He rejoices in its desolation as though it were present to his eyes. There is energy in every verse.
II. Let us look a little more particularly at the work which was given him to do: The Assyria which, he knew was powerful in the extreme. The empire had attained the very summit of its splendour and prosperity. It had “multiplied its merchants as the stars of heaven. Its crowned ones, its princes and nobles, were as the locusts” for number--as the locusts, also, in their destructiveness and their love of spoil. It seemed as if Nineveh had never been seated on a throne more secure and stable. We can fix pretty accurately the date of Nahum’s prophecy from a historical reference which he makes in the course of it. Addressing the haughty city, which had no disquieting dreams of coming evil, he asks, “Art thou better than No-Amon that was situate among the rivers, that had the waters round about her, whose rampart was the sea, and her wall was of the sea?” Yet what a destruction, entire and irrevocable, had befallen her, as the prophet goes on to point out! “She was carried away, she went into captivity; her young children also were dashed in pieces at the top of all the streets; and they cast lots for her honourable men, and all her great men were bound in chains” (Nahum 3:8; Nahum 3:10, R.V.). Now, this triumph over No-Amon, which we are better acquainted with under the name of Thebes, was gained by Assyria itself. It was one of the achievements of King Assur-bani-pal that he crushed a dangerous revolt which had broken out in Egypt, and drove the leader of it from the country, and plundered Thebes and laid it waste. Its temples were hewed in pieces, and two of its obelisks were carried as trophies to Nineveh. Its people, as Nahum declares, were treated with the terrible barbarities of heathen war. And this victory over the city of Amon was won about the year 665 b.c.; so that the prophet, who is familiar with it, must have preached and laboured at a somewhat later period, perhaps about the middle of the seventh century before the coming of our Lord.£ It was only the inspiration of God’s Spirit which could lead any one to foretell, at an era when the Assyrian empire had reached its widest limits, that its overthrow was close at hand. To ordinary onlookers everything seemed to presage for it a long and a successful future; no ominous cloud had as yet appeared in the sky; no enemy too formidable to be met and overcome had shown himself. Assur-bani-pal£ was not personally, indeed, a brave and fearless ruler, such as his predecessors Esar-haddon and Sargon had been. He was liker the haughty and luxurious and boastful Sennacherib, who had led his armies against Hezekiah half a century before, only to see them “melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.” But yet he had gained for Nineveh a glory which the city had never possessed formerly. It needed a Divine enlightenment to predict an issue so utterly improbable and so far beyond the ken of human foresight. And very speedily and very terribly the ruin came. Before Assur-bani-pal had been forty years dead his empire had ceased to be, and his rich and glorious capital had been blotted out from the face of the earth. Perhaps no part of Old Testament Scripture has had greater light thrown upon it by those excavations which have been carried on during recent years in Assyria than this short prophecy. As we read the records of the investigators, and thread our way in thought among the remains of Nineveh, and trace the after history of the deserted and forgotten site, we see everywhere the fulfilment of Nahum’s righteous denunciations. Of the words which he uttered against the doomed city, there is none which has not come to pass. The Medes and the Babylonians were the chief assailants of the great empire, although its antagonists seemed to rise up from every quarter. So mighty a nation died hard. When its armies were routed in the open field the king£ made a final stand in the capital, and closed the city gates. The siege, as we learn from some tablets which survive from these days of mortal struggle, lasted over two years; for the walls were one hundred feet high and fifty feet thick, and had been impregnable hitherto. But at length the end came--came not in the way of ordinary warfare. A great rise of the Tigris brought about the fall of Nineveh, the flood undermining the fortifications. It was exactly as Nahum had foretold, “the gates of the rivers had been opened, and the palaces had been dissolved. Entering the city through the breach which the torrent had caused, the besiegers soon made it void and waste.” Built only of sun-dried clay, its houses and temples quickly crumbled into dust.£ We can well believe that, to many of the poor afflicted Israelites who heard them, Nahum’s words seemed too good to be true; yet God has carried them out literally and in every detail What a blessed deliverance this was which the seer beheld! Nineveh was as cruel as it was great. It was in reality what the prophet of Elkosh pictured it, a lion which did tear in pieces enough for his whelps, and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his holes with prey, and his dens with ravin “The Assyrian annals,” says Professor Sayce, who has made them his daily study, “glory in the record of a ferocity at which we stand aghast.” And, no doubt, the captive Hebrews had felt in many ways the brutality of their conqueror; the godly among them, too, shuddered when they saw his molten images, his drunkenness, his lust, his exalting of himself against Jehovah. It was no mere vindictiveness which led them to wish and pray that the earth might be freed from a monster such as this--a monster which, like the Grendel that Beowulf slew, made the hearts of men everywhere sad and weary and hopeless. Rather it was the truest piety and the most genuine religion. How these sorrowful and yearning souls would welcome Nahum’s prophecy!
III. Can we gather any lessons for ourselves from Nahum and his prophecy?
1. One of them will be a lesson of the vanity and hopelessness of resisting God. Very impressively that truth is taught us by the words of the prophet, if they be read in the light of their fulfilment. The Nineveh of Nahum’s day looked fair and strong, as though no evil were ever likely to befall it and no plague to come nigh it. But it had taken up arms against God. Its idol worship, its licentiousness, its pride, its cruelty towards His people, whom He had given into its hands to be chastened and not to be destroyed,--all these things made Him its enemy. And in conflict with such an Adversary even Nineveh could avail nothing; it dashed itself in vain against the bosses of Jehovah’s buckler. Nay, He has utterly vanquished it; He has ground it to powder. What a tragedy there is in the history of every nation, and of every individual heart, that is opposed to God! Sooner or later the history closes in darkness and misery and ruin.
2. Again, we gather from Nahum’s prophecy a lesson with regard to the motives which guide and animate God’s government of the world. He rules it in the interests of His own people. There is something grand and sublime in the spectacle of the lonely Hebrew captive who stands up to face the great Assyrian tyranny, and to tell it that the destined hour for its fall is almost come. What was it that wrought within him such faith as this--a faith which “laughs at impossibilities, and says, ‘It shall be done’“? It was the conviction that his Lord remembered still His own chosen generation, the seed of Abraham His friend, But such a confidence all God’s sons and daughters should seek after and should cherish. Let them believe that He governs the world and controls its affairs on their behalf; that He has thought of their necessities in planning all the events which take place among men; that He cares more for the souls of His little ones than for the principalities, and powers, the thrones and dominions, of the earth. They dwell secure who find their home in Him.
3. Once more, we may learn from some of Nahum’s words the supreme blessedness of leaning upon God. Now and then there is a lull in the thunder of his sentences, and his speech drops as the rain and distils as the dew--as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass. He forgets Nineveh for a little, and turns in pity and love to Israel. This is his language at one moment. “The Lord hath His way in the whirlwind and in the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet who can stand before His indignation? and who can abide the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by Him. But, the next moment, how soft and sweet are the tones of his voice! “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knoweth them that trust in Him.” There is no more beautiful verse in all the Bible. And it is as true as it is beautiful. We should have no doubt of its truth--we who live after Bethlehem and Calvary and the grave in Joseph’s garden, and who are familiar with the exceeding grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Orginal Secession Magazine.)
Nahum’s range as an inspired teacher
As to this prophet’s rank in the series of inspired teachers, it is suggested that his message is meagre and his conceptions are narrow. He has nothing to say about Israel’s Messianic character and future. He has no rebuke for her sinfulness and unworthiness. His soul is consumed with unreasoning indignation against Assyria, and he is devoid of that lofty conception of the world’s government which enabled earlier prophets to recognise in Assyria Jehovah’s scourge for His people’s stubbornness and the chastening rod of His gracious discipline. In contrast to that large and religious interpretation of Providence, Nahum appears as the representative of a retrogression into narrow, national particularism. Now it is to be admitted that the form of Nahum’s oracle lends itself to this misreading, but the spirit and aim of the prophet ought to have prevented it. Besides the wrong of Israel, more than once in his short utterance he presents Assyria as the oppressor of mankind, whose avenger Jehovah is (Nahum 3:4; Nahum 3:7; Nahum 3:19). Nor even in the contemplation of his own people’s injuries is the prophet’s zeal vindictive and national. It is not revenge, but righteousness that demands the transgressor’s downfall. It is not Israel’s pride that is at stake, but God’s honour; not the redemption of his people, but the vindication of his God, that is in question. With Nahum Nineveh’s punishment is the guarantee of the world’s Divine government, and his impassioned declaration of its downfall is the measure, not of his hostility to it, but of the struggle and triumph of his faith in God, and in God’s kingdom. That being the single and simple issue present to his mind, he naturally does not even touch that aspect of the Assyrian enigma which explains its evil power over God’s people and the world by their sinful failure to be what God would have had them be for their own happiness and humanity’s good. (W. G. Elmslie, D. D.)