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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries

Nahum

- Nahum

by Joseph Exell

Introduction.
§ 1. SUBJECT OF THE BOOK

THE prophecy of Nahum, as the title asserts, is concerned with one subject alone. It is "the burden of Nineveh;" it announces the fate of that evil city. In the Greek Bible it is placed immediately after Jonah, as being the complement of that book. Jonah had preached repentance to Nineveh, and the people had hearkened to his voice, but had soon relapsed into their old sins; and now Nahum pronounces their sentence. Their pride, oppression, idolatry, and especially their defiance of God's sovereignty, are severely rebuked, and the certain and complete destruction of the nation is plainly announced.

The prophecy is composed of three strophes, answering almost exactly to the three chapters into which it is divided. It begins (ch. 1.) with stating God's purpose to inflict punishment on Nineveh. The Lord is just and severe; long suffering, indeed, as the continued existence of Assyria proves, yet the certain Avenger of wrong doing. Who has ever withstood his power? Earth and sea, and all the inhabitants thereof, bear witness to his irresistible might. And Nineveh must perish, in spite of its riches and its armies, because it has exalted itself against God and his people. Thus the Lord's justice shall be revealed and established, when be brings ruin on his enemies and happiness to his children. Then (ch. 2.) the prophet announces more in detail the destruction of Nineveh. She shall be besieged, she shall struggle in vain, she shall be taken and plundered and utterly wasted. Comparing her future ruin with her past splendour, the prophet is lost in admiration of the equity and wisdom of God, who doeth all these things, What is the cause of this calamity he then proceeds to state (ch. 3.). Assyria had become notorious for cruelty, treachery, rapine, idolatry. It had seduced other nations to follow its steps. And now its might should save it no more than its strength had saved Thebes, so lately captured. Its towers and fortresses should fall, its soldiers should lose heart, its palaces be consumed with fire, its inhabitants be put to the sword, and the Assyrian empire, lately so formidable and strong, should become a byword of derision among all people.
This prophecy, so precise and assured, was the result of no human prevision; it was the outcome of no glance of a far-seeing statesman's eye. It was something more definite than a general confidence in God's moral government, and the ultimate triumph of righteousness. When Nahum prophesied Assyria was at the height of its prosperity. No enemy in its neighbourhood was left unsubdued; the distant Egypt had submitted to its arms; Phoenicia and Cyprus owned its sway; Judaea paid annual tribute; commercial enterprise had drawn unto it the riches of all nations. No one at this epoch could have foreseen the speedy end of this prosperity. Nahum needed a single-hearted courage and a full persuasion of the truth of his mission to denounce the crimes of this flourishing kingdom, and to proclaim its coming downfall. In fifty years the end came. A combination of enemies overthrew this mighty empire. On the death of Assurbanipal matters began to assume a dangerous attitude. Egypt rose against its former conqueror; Babylon revolted; the Medes, now become a powerful monarchy, prepared to attack Nineveh. The reigning monarch (whose name is uncertain), the successor of Assurbanipal, himself marched against the latter, sending Nabopolassar to recover Babylon. The Medes were defeated, and for a time driven back. Nabopolassar also was successful, and received as a reward for his services the title of King of Babylon. Here he managed affairs so skilfully, and strengthened himself so effectually, that, after fifteen years, he found himself able to throw off the Assyrian yoke, and to establish his own independence. The Medes, meantime, under Cyaxares, had recovered from their late defeat, and were only deterred from attacking Nineveh by an inroad of the Scythians into their own country. In order to strengthen his position, Nabopolassar made alliance with all the enemies of Assyria, and became the ruling spirit of a strong confederacy, which comprised Medes and Persians, Egyptians, Armenians, and other nations, all animated with the fierce desire of revenging themselves on Assyria: Josiah of Judah, as a tributary prince, was drawn into the contest, and fell at Megiddo, while endeavouring to arrest the advance of the Egyptian army. About B.C. 612 the allied forces attacked Nineveh, but were repulsed with loss. Victory for some time hovered over the Assyrians; but the enemy, reinforced from Bactria, proved irresistible. The Ninevites, fearing for their final safety, attempted to escape from the city. They were, however, overtaken, and again shut up within their walls. Here they valiantly defended themselves for more than two years, when a circumstance, against which no remedy availed, laid them at the mercy of the besiegers. An unusually heavy and long continued flood of the river Tigris carried away a large section of the huge rampart that surrounded the city. Through the gap thus formed the enemy forced their way within the walls and captured the place. The king, rather than fall into the hands of his implacable foes, gathered his wives and his treasure into the palace, and burned himself with them there; the town was sacked, and a great number of the inhabitants were massacred. Thus fell Nineveh, B.C. 608, according to the prophecy of Nahum, so that, a few years afterwards, Ezekiel could say (Ezekiel 22:22, Ezekiel 22:23), "Assyria is there and all her company: his graves are about him: all of them slain, fallen by the sword: whose graves are set in the sides of the pit, and her company is round about her grave: all of them slain, fallen by the sword, which caused terror in the land of the living."

§ 2. AUTHOR.

Of the Prophet Nahum nothing definite is known but what he himself says. His name, which means "Comforter," does not occur elsewhere in the Bible, but is found, according to Gesenius, in Phoenician inscriptions, and under the form Ναìουμος in one of Boeckh's Greek inscriptions ('Corp. Inscript.,' 4:3). He calls himself "the El-koshite" (ὁ ̓Ελκεσαῖος). This is not a patronymic, but signifies "a native of Elkosh," or Elcesi, which, as Jerome says ('Prol. in Nahum'), was a small village in Galilee, well known to the Jews, but in his time showing very few traces of ancient buildings. It is supposed to be represented by the modern El-Kauzeh, a village a little eastward of Ramah in Naphtali. That Nahum was a native of Galilee is perhaps intimated by the name Capernaum, which is interpreted, "village of Nahum," and by the fact that he shows special interest in the northern portion of the Holy Land, in his mention of Carmel, Lebanon, and Bashan, as languishing under the rebuke of God. It is probable that, when Esarhaddon repeopled the northern province with a mixed population imported from his own dominions, Nahum with many of his countrymen removed to Judaea, This may have given direction to his oracle. There is, however, nothing provincial in his language to serve as an indication of his locality, but we should judge that he must have removed from Galilee to Judaea, and uttered his prophecy in the latter province. A late tradition, mentioned by Asseman ('Bibl. Orient.,' 1:525; 3:352), and adopted by some modern writers, maintains that Nahum was born in Assyria of parents who had been carried thither after the capture of Samaria, and that his sepulchre was to be found at Alkush, ten miles north of Mosul, on the left bank of the Tigris, in which spot also, as the story goes, were buried Jonah, Obadiah, and Jephthah. "It is a place," says Layard ('Nineveh,' 1:233), "held in great reverence by Mohammedans and Christians, but especially by Jews, who keep the building in repair, and flock here in great numbers at certain seasons of the year. The tomb is a simple plaster box, covered with green cloth, and standing at the upper end of a large chamber. The house containing the tomb is a modern building. There are no inscriptions, nor fragments of any antiquity about the place." The story arose some two thousand years after the prophet's time, and was probably inverted to account for his knowledge of Assyrian affairs, which was supposed to denote resident and eyewitness, or else was founded simply on the similarity between the name of the village and that of his birthplace. Elkosh and Alkush were near enough in sound to suggest identity, and mediaeval tradition, credulous and uncritical, fastened upon the Assyrian village as the scene of Nahum's birth and labours, and it became a shrine for pilgrims' honour, with no more reason than in the ease of Jonah and Obadiah. And as to Ewald's opinion that Nahum was born of parents living in captivity there, we have only to say that the Israelites were not deported to Assyria under Tiglath-Pileser, but into Media, Babylon, and Mesopotamia. That no one living in Canaan at that time could have exhibited Nahum's acquaintance with Nineveh and its people, is an assertion utterly groundless. The knowledge displayed is not necessarily that of an eyewitness, and was doubtless also possessed by many Jews who had mixed with Gentiles, or had become acquainted with the foreign soldiers who had too often forced their way into the Holy Land. And if it be said that the prophecy is concerned wholly with Assyria, and contains little or no mention of Judaea, which could scarcely have been the case if the writer had been resident in the latter country, it must be answered that the whole tenor of the utterance is to demonstrate the destruction of the power hostile to Judah, the type of the most brutal form of heathendom, and to comfort the Hebrews with the assurance of final victory. But, say the critics, Nahum employs Assyrian words, which a Judaean could never have used. It is true that three such expressions have been found in Nahum 2:7. and 3:17, but they prove nothing in favour of the assumption. The first, huzzab, as it is given in our version, may be considered a Hebrew word taken as a verb, and rendered, "it is decreed," or "it is decided," but is more probably an appellative, as shown in the Exposition; the second is probably also a Hebrew word, derived from nazar, "to separate," and meaning "the crowned," or "the levied for war;" the third, taphsar, occurs in Jeremiah 51:27, and is an Assyrian official title, which might well be known in Judea, and is here used most appropriately. There is nothing, therefore, to negative the general opinion that Nahum was a native of Palestine, and exercised his prophetical office in that country.

§ 3. DATE

The time when Nahum prophesied has always, till quite lately, been considered most uncertain, and critics have variously assigned it to dates differing as widely as those of Jehu and Zechariah. Ewald regards him as a prophet of the Captivity, arguing that the prominence given to Assyria, and the merely cursory mention of Judah, could have proceeded only from seer who was himself an exile from the promised land, and probably resident in the country which he denounces. It is obvious to remark that, commissioned as he was to prophesy against Nineveh, he must necessarily make this the chief subject of his utterances; and, in reality, comfort and encouragement to Judah from the central part of his prophecy, to which all the denunciations of the enemy converge. A majority of critics have considered him to have prophesied during the reign of Hezekiah, and to have been a contemporary of Micah and Isaiah. The place assigned to his work in the Hebrew canon affords support to this opinion, which is supposed to be further confirmed by the language of Nahum 1:11, Nahum 1:12, which, it is said, alludes to the invasion of Judaea by the Assyrians; and that of Nahum 2:13, which, it is affirmed, hints at the mission of Rabshakeh (Isaiah 36:0.). It must be allowed that the allusions are most obscure if regarded as concerned with those facts (see the Exposition, in loc.). One thing is certain, viz. that Nahum prophesied after the deportation of the ten tribes. The words of Nahum 2:2 ("The Lord hath turned away the excellency of Jacob, as the excellency of Israel," etc.) can refer to nothing else than that event. Another point is that there are many passages in Nahum and Isaiah which are so similar that one prophet must have copied from the other; but which was the original, which the borrower, cannot be settled by a mere comparison of the writings. But all surmises as to the prophet's date have been set at rest of late years by certain discoveries in the Assyrian inscriptions. In Nahum 3:8 our prophet speaks of the capture and destruction of No-Amon, and the deportation of its inhabitants, as a recent and well remembered event. No is Thebes, in Upper Egypt, called by the Greeks Diospolis, the capital of that part of the kingdom; and we now learn from the cuneiform records that Assurbanipal, the son and successor of Esarhaddon, took that city in his second expedition against Urdamani, or Rud-Amon, the successor of Tirhakah, and carried the inhabitants away. This invasion took place soon after the death of Tirhakah, which occurred B.C. 664. So we may reckon the date of Nahum's prophecy to have been within ten years of the fall of Thebes, during the reign of Manasseh, whose name was suppressed in the title of the book, owing to that king's evil reputation.

As an instance of destructive criticism, we may note that Hitzig and others, knowing no corroborative evidence concerning the capture of No, at once concluded that the passage in Nahum which asserted this fact was an interpolation deserving of no credit. The inscriptions have happily proved the veracity of the prophet, and the rashness of his critics.

§ 4. GENERAL CHARACTER.

Among the minor prophets Nahum holds the highest place. His prophecy is a poem, stately, orderly, and impressive, all the parts of which are well arranged and mutually conducive to the unity of the whole. It is eminently tuneful and rhythmical, the words "re-echoing to the sense," and hurrying the hearer away with the speaker in complete sympathy. The style is full of force, the colouring brilliant, the picturing lifelike. The majestic opening, in which are described the attributes of God, his mercy and justice, is equalled by the vivid representation of the sack and ruin of Nineveh, which he paints as if passing before his own eyes. The language is pure and classical, with a certain originality in words and forms which separates it from other writings. It is true that here and there may be found remembrances of Joel and Isaiah; but these expressions may be derived from sources common to all the prophets, and from which, unconsciously as it may be, they drew some materials. And this incidental indebtedness does not diminish the character of originality in treatment and execution which is claimed for Nahum's work. The variety of illustration, the force of imagery, the elegance of diction, the clearness of style, in spite of rapidity of transition, give a unique character to this poem, and differentiate it from all others in the collection. There are no Messianic references; nor is there room for any lengthened array of moral and religious ideas; but these are entwined in forcible, if concise, terms God's existence, justice, and providence are everywhere asserted, witnessed to by the past, expected in the future; and from the coming judgment is drawn a. lesson of comfort for the chosen people.

§ 5. LITERATURE.

The special commentaries on Nahum are chiefly these: Bibliander; Peritus; Gesner, 'Explicatio'; Augustin de Quires; Crocius; Ursin, 'Hypomnemata'; Hufenreffer; Tarnovius; Van Hoke, 'Explicatio'; Kalinsky, 'Observationes'; Agrek; Greve; Grimm, 'Erklarung'; Svanborg; Bodin; Fruhn, 'Curae'; Justi; Holemann 'Illustratio'; O. Strauss, 'Nahumi de Nino Vaticinium'; also G. Strauss, 'Nineveh und das Wort Gottes'; Vance Smith, 'The Prophecies relating to Nineveh and the Assyrians'; Breiteneicher,'Nineveh und Nahum'; Reinke, 'Aelt Version'; B.B. Edwards, 'Translation of Nahum,' in Biblioth. Sacra, 5:551.

§ 6. ARRANGEMENT IN SECTIONS.

Part I. (Nahum 1:1-15.) The judgment upon Nineveh decreed by God.

§ 1. (Nahum 1:1.) The heading of the book.

§ 2. (Nahum 1:2-6.) The Divine justice is described, and the irresistible power of God illustrated by his control of the material world.

§ 3. (Nahum 1:7-11.) But the wrath of God falls not on those who trust in him; it is reserved for his enemies generally.

§ 4. (Nahum 1:12-15.) And especially for Nineveh, which shall be utterly destroyed, while Zion shall rejoice at the joyful news of its ruin, and keep her feasts in safety.

Part II. (Nahum 2:1-13.) The execution of the decree; the destruction of Nineveh.

§ 1. (Nahum 2:1-8.) Nineveh shall be besieged, because God is about to exalt his people by taking vengeance on the enemy, whose defence is of no avail.

§ 2. (Nahum 2:9-13.) The city is plundered, and lies waste in terrible contrast with its former excellency.

Part III. (Nahum 3:1-19.) The cause of the judgment — the sins of the city, which bring inevitable punishment.

§ 1. (Nahum 3:1-7.) The crimes that have brought this fate upon Nineveh.

§ 2. (Nahum 3:8-13.) The ruin can be no more averted than was that of No-Amon.

§ 3. (Nahum 3:14-19.) In spite of all its efforts and all its resources, it will meet with a terrible end.