Invitation to Nahum
Nahum makes a vital contribution to the progression of redemptive history. The prophet reveals God in terms of justice, power, and goodness and artfully and theologically intertwines the message of judgment and grace. His message of consolation to Israel, specifically Judah, was that God would judge Nineveh, the great and bloody city whose savagery was proverbial both in Scripture and its own records. Ironically, this message of certain destruction of Nineveh comes a hundred years after Jonah’s message to Nineveh that led to the amazing display of God’s grace in sparing the city in the light of widespread repentance. That repentance was short-lived and soon forgotten, and now Nahum pronounces doom on this new generation whose gross iniquities and opposition to God would find no pardon. Great and unrepentant sins bring certain ruin; judgment was inevitable. Significantly, whereas Jonah preached his message of threatened judgment directly to Nineveh, leading to their experience of grace, there is no indication that Nineveh ever heard Nahum’s declaration of certain and irreversible doom. God is gracious to whom he is gracious, but he withholds his mercy from whom he wills (Rom 9:14–18). He is sovereign in both salvation and judgment. Nahum’s oracle against Nineveh is timeless because God always deals with sinners and saints the same way. Sinners of every age and place must learn not to trifle with God, and saints of every age must learn to rest secure in divine grace and in the certainty of God’s unfailing plan and purpose of redemption. Assyria was just one more member of the serpent’s seed that would be defeated in the progression to the fullness of time when the Seed of the woman would come. God’s defeating this fierce enemy points directly to the mediatorial kingship of Christ that assures the defeat of every enemy of the gospel.
Who Wrote Nahum?
Nahum 1:1 identifies the author of the book to be Nahum from Elkosh. Little is known about Nahum, whose name means “comfort” or “consolation,” apart from the fact that he was from Elkosh. The location of Elkosh is uncertain. It may refer to an Assyrian city “al-Kush” on the banks of the Tigris River not far from Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. This would suggest that Nahum’s family may have been from Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and part of the Assyrian deportation that occurred with the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. Others suggest that it may refer the city in the Northern Kingdom that was so closely associated with the ministry of Jesus whose name was changed to Capernaum to commemorate its association with the prophet. That would, likewise, identify Nahum as having northern roots and add to his particular interest in announcing the doom of the nation that had defeated his. Still others claim that Elkosh is an otherwise unknown city in the Southern Kingdom which would account for the special application of the message to Judah. The uncertainty of situating Nahum’s residence is not critical to grasping his message.
When Was Nahum Written?
References to a historic event and a future event mark the timeframe of Nahum’s prophecy between 663 and 612 BC. Nahum mentions as a past fact the destruction of No-Amon or Thebes, a prominent Egyptian city that fell to the Assyrian army under the leadership of Assurbanipal around 664/663 BC (Nah 3:8). His principal message concerned the fall of Nineveh that was still in the future. Nineveh fell to a Medo-Babylonian coalition in 612 BC. The Babylonian Chronicle, a concise record of Nabopolassar’s campaigns (616–609 BC), describes a two-month siege against Nineveh that was ultimately aided by the flooding of the Tigris, which enabled the Babylonian forces to breach Nineveh’s seemingly impregnable defensive walls. Likewise, Nahum links Nineveh’s fall to a flood (Nah 1:8; 2:6) indicating that the prophet was predicting precisely what Babylon would do. Although the precise date is impossible to pinpoint between the two extreme limits, most likely it was nearer the time of Nineveh’s fall, which seemed to be impending in the prophecy.
What Is the Primary Theme of Nahum?
The Destruction of Nineveh. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire; thus, its destruction marked the fall of the entire kingdom.
Nahum was written to demonstrate God’s sovereignty in judgment and salvation, warning sinners of God’s exacting justice and encouraging saints of God’s unfailing redemptive purpose in advancing his kingdom against all opposition.
“The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,
and will pursue his enemies into darkness.”
— Nahum 1:7–8 ESV
I. Discriminating Judgment (1:1–15)
A. The Discerning Judge (1:1–8)
B. The Determined Judgment (1:9–15)
II. Devastating Judgment (2:1–13)
A. The Execution of Judgment (2:1–7)
B. The Consequences of Judgment (2:8–13)
III. Deserved Judgment (3:1–19)
A. Because of Wickedness (3:1–4)
B. Resulting in Weakness (3:5–19)
Discriminating Judgment (1:1–15)
The opening words of the book state clearly the topic (“the oracle about Nineveh”) and the source of the message (“the vision of Nahum”). The word “oracle” commonly designates an authoritative prophetic declaration. The word “vision” refers to the divine origin of the message—revelation. Although it sometimes describes the manner of receiving the message, here it highlights the fact of reception. What follows are not the speculations of a man, but the very inspired words from the Lord.
The Discerning Judge (1:1–8)
This opening section is a song of divine majesty and highlights three truths about God that ought to compel every sinner to repent and every saint to rejoice. This opening song warrants careful thought as it sets the foundation for the entire prophecy.
1:2 First, God’s justice is inflexible. According to his justice, God renders to every man fairly without partiality. His character demands it, and his enemies deserve it. This verse reveals four aspects of God’s character:
- God is jealous. This does not mean that God is given to petty suspicions but that he demands total allegiance and exclusive worship. Moses referred to God as a consuming fire, even a jealous God (Deut 4:24). With fervent heat, God is zealous for truth, for his own glory, and for his people.
- God is an Avenger. Three times the verse records that Yahweh is taking vengeance. In each instance, the verb form expresses the habitual consistency of the divine behavior. God’s taking vengeance is not vindictiveness, maliciousness, or a capricious flare of temper. It flows from his nature as an expression and consequence of his jealousy (see Heb 10:30–31). Significantly, each occurrence associates the action to Yahweh, who is the covenant making and keeping God. His taking vengeance on the enemy is a demonstration of his covenant faithfulness.
- God is literally “a Master of wrath” (translated as “wrathful” in the ESV and “furious” in the KJV). The word “master” is baal, which suggests God’s proficiency or skill in executing his wrath. No wrath compares to divine wrath, and there is no fury like divine fury. The Lord is fearful in his judgments, and therefore, sinners should be warned.
- God is a Watcher of his enemies (translated “keeps wrath” in the ESV and “reserveth wrath” in the KJV). God keeps watch over, observing carefully those he is inspecting. None can escape since all things are open and naked before his eyes (Heb 4:13). His judgments are infallible, and therefore sinners get what they deserve. The objects of his wrath are enemies (haters of God), adversaries, and those who are guilty before his law. God’s justice works according to his inflexible law—a sobering reality.
1:3–8 Second, God’s power is irresistible. Verse 3 states explicitly that God is great of strength; His power is infinite; he is omnipotent. Three things stand out about His irresistible power.
- God’s power is tempered by patience. The collocation of God’s slowness to anger and his power is noteworthy since God’s longsuffering is most commonly associated with his compassion. Whereas human vengeance reckons with its victims swiftly out of concern that the enemy may somehow prevail, God is not threatened by any. His delay in executing judgment is not out of weakness but power. If he had less power, he would be less patient. Divine patience is not evidence of inability or indifference, but rather that which is designed to lead to repentance (Rom 2:4) and to remove any excuse from sinners.
- God’s power is proven by providence. The song focuses on God’s unrivalled, absolute, and inexhaustible power in the natural creation to illustrate his control over the spiritual. He controls the weather, that which is beyond man’s control (Nah 1:3b). He controls the seas and the rivers, setting their shores and altering them according to his will (1:4). This is perhaps an allusion to the times God dried up the Red Sea and the Jordan for the deliverance of his people. Humanly uncontrollable forces were no hindrance to God’s saving work. He controls the earth (1:4b–5). Sites are mentioned noted for their fertility and stability but are subject to God.
- God’s power is executed in judgment (1:6). The questions of verse 6 answer themselves. If the majestic mountains quake and melt before the Lord, how can puny man stand? Psalm 1:5 declares clearly that sinners will not be able to stand in the day of judgment. When God lets loose his wrath, there will be no defense, no excuse, no ground upon which to stand (Nah 1:8).
1:7 Third, God’s goodness is immeasurable. God is as powerful in grace as he is in wrath; he is good and ready to pardon (Ps 86:5). Two thoughts emerge from the assertion that the Lord is good.
- His goodness is effective. He is a stronghold in the day of trouble. This stronghold is accessible to those in trouble and impregnable. God is a fortress that is secure from any calamity. Ironically, the Lord who is the source of wrath is the only refuge against that wrath. Safety is found not by trying to escape but by fleeing to the Lord.
- The experience of his goodness is the consequence of discriminating knowledge. The Lord knows those who are his (see 2Tim 2:19), and those who are his are the ones trusting him. Trusting has the idea of seeking refuge and safety in the Lord. With special care, concern, and interest, God knows his people collectively, individually, thoroughly, and efficaciously. There will be no mistakes on the day of judgment.
The Determined Judgment (1:9–15)
1:9–11 The closing verses of chapter 1 delineate Nahum’s dual focus of judgment and salvation. Assyria’s doom equates to Judah’s deliverance, specifically addressing the destruction of Assyria. The Lord will frustrate all of their schemes and plots against himself and issues the sobering stern warning that he will execute a complete and total destruction against them. The determined destruction will be so thoroughly devastating that a second round of trouble will not be necessary. The imagery of verse 10 pictures the consequent helplessness and powerlessness of Assyria because of the judgment. They will be like tangled thorns and staggering drunkards as they are burned like dry stubble in the flames. Whereas verses 9 and 10 have the entire nation in view, verse 11 focuses on an individual who is particularly guilty of his scheming plots against the Lord. The consensus is that this refers to Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who led his forces into Judah during the reign of Hezekiah. Notwithstanding his superior military might and strategy, he was divinely thwarted from carrying out his plan. God supernaturally intervened on behalf of Hezekiah and Judah by killing 185,000 of the army in mass confusion and causing the rest to retreat (2Kgs 18:13–19:37). What happened to Assyria then (ca. 701 BC) was just a foretaste of what was going to happen in 612 BC.
1:12–13 Here, Nahum transitions to the corollary theme of Judah’s deliverance. The Lord assures Judah that even though it appeared that Assyria was enjoying peace and prosperity, things were about to change. Although Assyria was a formidable foe and seemingly invincible, they were no match for God. The Lord was going to turn the tables, liberating Judah from every vestige of Assyrian domination and promising that he would not again use the Assyrians to inflict trouble on his people. Ironically, God had used the Assyrians as the rod of his anger to execute chastisement against Israel (Isa 10:5–19), but the Assyrian abuse of power had now earned God’s wrath on them. They would not be used again to afflict his people.
1:14–15 Now the author transitions back to addressing the Assyrians, and specifically the future king. The Lord pronounced a threefold sentence on the king that marked a total defeat. He would have no descendants to follow him on the throne; the pagan temples would be destroyed demonstrating the powerlessness of the idols to protect their devotees; and he would be buried in ignominy. This word of judgment on the enemy translated to good news for Judah. The imagery of verse 15 is that of a messenger on a high vantage point waiting on the outcome of a battle in anticipation of announcing the good news of victory. In this instance the good news would be Assyria’s defeat and the prospect of peace and religious freedom without the worry of the enemy’s resurrection to power. Significantly, Paul appeals to the imagery of Nahum to refer to the ultimate declaration of good news in the proclamation of the gospel (Rom 10:15). This is the good news of victory over sin and Satan. The national destruction of Assyria pointed to the spiritual counterpart in the full gospel of Christ.
Devastating Judgment (2:1–13)
Devastating Judgment (2:1–13)
2:1–2 Nahum describes the impending defeat and destruction of Nineveh in terms of warfare, plunder, and captivity. As they had done to others, it would be done to them. The Lord instructed Nineveh to man their battle stations even though any preparations for war would be futile because the coming enemy, “the scatterer,” was invincible. Although this term historically referred to the Medes and Babylonians that joined forces in conquering Assyrian, the ultimate referent would be God himself who wielded the coalition as the weapon in his hand to accomplish his purpose. Significantly, the demise of Assyria was linked to the restoration of the majesty of Israel. Scripture often demonstrates that God’s judgment of the wicked consequentially equates to God’s blessing on his people.
2:3 This section (2:3–7) portrays the battle scene. The red apparel and weaponry of the invading army gave the appearance of warriors who were soaked with blood of their adversaries. That gruesome looking infantry along with the flashing glares from the metallic parts of the chariots and brandishing of the cypress spear shafts would have been an intimidating and fearful sight.
2:4–5 Confusion and panic set-in within the city with chariots rushing around seemingly with no evident battle plan and infantry officers staggering around unable to lead effectively in defending the city. In contrast to the mass chaos inside the city, the invaders were systematically constructing a siege ramp to scale the walls behind the safety of their own defensive shelter called a “mantelet,” a moveable structure to shield those erecting the ramp. A city’s walls were its primary defense and the major obstacle for any invading army. Nineveh’s walls were renowned and seemingly impregnable, which only underscores the activity of the irresistible divine hand in the siege work. Nineveh’s walls were reportedly 100 feet or 30 meters high with strategically placed towers extending 100 feet or 30 meters above the wall itself. At the top, the wall was wide enough for three chariots, and on the outside, it was surrounded by a moat 150 feet or 45 meters wide and 60 feet or 18 meters deep.
2:6 Notwithstanding what appeared to be an impenetrable, unconquerable, and indestructible defense, it was completely ineffective to resist what God had decreed. The flooding of the city that played a part in its defeat was just another bit of evidence of the divine hand at work.
2:7 The translation of this verse is disputed and difficult, but the overall meaning is clear enough. The execution of judgment included captivity, which would be the cause of extreme mourning and lamentation, pictured by the moaning of the servant girls who beat their breasts as a gesture of grief. The question concerns the identity of the one captured. Some translate the disputed word as “mistress,” perhaps a reference to Ishtar, the goddess queen, who had no power to protect her devotees. Others interpret the word to be the proper name of the actual queen of the city. The removal of either would have been a sign of shameful defeat.
The Consequences of Judgment (2:8–13)
2:8 The effects of God’s judgment were so severely devastating that the drastic reversals of fortune resulted in mass chaos and utter astonishment. Verse 8 highlights the chaos with the imagery of a pool that has burst its restraints causing panic as people frantically try to escape while ignoring instructions to remain calm. Verse 10 points to the astonishment over the complete desolation as the people reacted with melting hearts, knocking knees, physical anguish, and pale complexions.
Three reversals of fortune sum up the consequences of the judgment.
2:9–10 First, the plunderer becomes the plundered. Assyria had amassed an inestimable amount of wealth as they received tribute monies and treasures from plundering or extorting nations throughout their extensive empire–Israel included (for instance, 2Kgs 15:19; 16:8; 17:3). But now all of the silver, gold, and precious treasures were up for grabs by the divinely sent invaders.
2:11–12 Second, the predator becomes the prey. Nineveh is compared to an undisturbed lion’s lair where the lioness and cubs were well fed by the prey supplied by the marauding lion. The lion’s den depicts the Assyrians sustaining themselves through their many conquests. Similarly, Isaiah compared the enemy that God would raise up, most likely the Assyrians, to roaring lions that methodically and successfully caught their prey (Isa 5:26, 29). The opening question of verse 11, “where is the lion’s den,” implies that the den is no longer occupied, the predator is no more.
2:13 Third, the striker becomes the stricken. Isaiah 10:4–6 identifies Assyria as the rod of God’s anger whom he commissioned to plunder and to take prey. Once used by God to strike disobedient Israel, Assyria now became the object of God’s anger. God would strike them by destroying their military machinery (burning the chariots), eliminating their warriors and potential victims (devouring the young lions and cutting off the prey), and silencing every threat (messengers, e.g., Rabshakeh’s threat Hezekiah, 2Kgs 18). Although each of these reversals are consequential, the opening statement of 2:13 is the most dreadful as the Lord declared that he was against them. There were certainly natural, political, and military explanations for what happened to Nineveh, and from a human perspective the fall of Nineveh to the Medes and Babylonians was just the stuff of history. But the spiritual explanation is far more significant. God was against them, and to be on the wrong side of God is certain doom and damnation. The Medes and Babylonians were unaware mercenaries employed by God to accomplish his will and purpose.
Deserved Judgment (3:1–19)
The destruction of Nineveh was warranted because of heinous sins and crimes against both God and humanity and resulted in Assyria’s becoming a scorn and laughingstock to the world that previously they dominated. Their destruction was justly proportioned to what they deserved. Nothing is more fearful than receiving from God what is deserved.
Because of Wickedness (3:1–4)
3:1 Assyria was destroyed because of its cruel atrocities against other nations. They had little regard for human dignity as they pursued their self-interests. Verse 1 tersely heaps one crime upon the other. They were a bloody city—literally, a city of bloods. In Hebrew, the plural of blood always refers to blood outside of the veins and hence denotes the act of shedding of blood or the blood-guiltiness resulting from the act. It points to all of the murderous barbarities that characterized the Assyrian violence. They were full of lies. Consider the series of falsehoods of the Rabshakeh against Hezekiah as a case in point (2Kgs 19). They were full of plunder (“robbery” in the KJV). Ransacking the treasuries of the victims was the means of accumulating their wealth. They were insatiable. There was no end to their prey, their potential victims. They sought to extend the borders of their empire as far as they could. But even at the height of their power, God had set the limits of their expansion. Sennacherib, for instance, was resolved to absorb Judah into his kingdom (2Kgs 18) and militarily was capable of success, but God intervened and prevented Judah from becoming his prey.
3:2–3 Before naming more of Nineveh’s sins, the prophet digresses with a description of the battle that will mark the end of Assyria’s domain, a punishment that mirrors the kind of extreme warfare that they had inflicted on so many of their victims. The battle scene highlights the charging of the cavalry and chariotry that result in so many deaths that the unburied corpses are piled up creating a macabre obstacle course hindering the retreat of those trying to escape.
3:4 More of Assyria’s wickedness that warranted judgment is now highlighted. They were guilty of harlotry and sorcery, sins that are frequently named in the Bible as representing the epitome of wickedness (e.g., Ezek 16; 23; Rev 17). This wickedness extended into what may be regarded as human trafficking, as they bartered in human life for their own interests and gains.
Resulting in Weakness (3:5–19)
3:5–7 The closing section stresses that Nineveh’s punishment was fitting to their sins. The Lord declares for a second time that he is against them (see Nah 2:13). Significantly, both of the declarations come from the Lord of hosts. The word “hosts” refers literally to “armies.” It designates the Lord as the Commander-in-Chief who has all authority, power, and resources to order and accomplish his will. Assyria was renowned for the power of its army, but it was nothing before the ultimate Warrior. The Lord would bring them to utter shame. His lifting up of their skirts was a euphemism for exposing their private parts, a gesture of shame that would be made public. The glory that they once knew would be changed to mockery and scorn. In vivid imagery, the Lord says that he will pelt them with disgusting garbage, making them a spectacle of shame, forsaken without any sympathy from onlookers.
3:8–10 This passage refers to a historical event to show that Assyria could not escape the sentence of destruction. The Egyptian city of Thebes (also known as No or No-Amon) seemed to be invincible, but it was destroyed by the Assyrians. Thebes was located along the Nile, which provided a natural barrier of defense. But notwithstanding its seemingly secure location coupled with all the boundless support of all of Egypt and its allies (Put and the Libyans), Thebes fell and suffered cruel brutalities and exile at the hand of the Assyrians. Now its ruins warned Nineveh that it is vulnerable as well. The chilling question “Are you better than Thebes” demanded the even more chilling response “no.” Assyria would receive as it had given.
3:11–14 The prophecy ends with a series of insults that add to the scorn directed to Nineveh and highlights the weakness that precludes any hope of escape. They are completely unable to defend themselves. They are like drunkards who go into hiding to seek to find a place of safety. The word for “hiding” also has the sense of being unconscious or deranged and may fit the idea of drunkenness a bit better. But the sense is clear that their attempts to escape would be futile. What they assumed was their fortress was like a fig tree ripe for easy harvest. They would be easy picking for the enemy, particularly in view of their army comprised of the weak and inexperienced. Access (the gates) to their fortress would be wide open to the enemy.
3:15–19 The prophet sarcastically ridicules the weakness of the people. He first of all uses the imagery of prolific insects. Even if they were to multiply and increase like swarms of locusts, they would still be brought to nothing by the enemy and would be as barren as what had been eaten by the cankerworm. The prophet uses the locust imagery as well to describe the ineffectiveness of the princes whose leadership would be crucial in the time of conflict. The point is that all the officials and leaders disappear when the trouble comes. Without the leadership, chaos ensues. In verse 18, the prophet moves away from the insect imagery to address the failures of the leadership and the inevitable consequence for the people. The shepherds (a common designation of leaders in the ancient Near East, including the Bible) who should have been vigilant were asleep, and the people, abandoned by leadership, are left to themselves to be scattered. Verse 19 makes it clear that there would be no alleviation from collapse and that the destruction would be irreversible. As the news of Nineveh’s fall spread to those who knew of Assyria’s wickedness, so did the clapping of hands. Assyria’s rise to power was reason for nations to fear; Assyria’s fall was occasion for the nations to rejoice.
Interestingly, Nahum, like Jonah a century earlier, closes the prophecy against Nineveh with a question. Jonah ended with God asking how he could not spare repentant Nineveh. Nahum’s question is essentially how God could not judge unrepentant and wicked Nineveh. Jonah’s message was that God in his mercy receives those who come to him in faith and repentance. Nahum’s message was that God in his justice must judge the unrepentant. The message of both prophets remains relevant: Experiencing God’s grace and mercy is eternally better than to be sentenced according to his justice.
This commentary is adapted from the author’s notes and comments in The Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible with permission from Reformation Heritage Books.
The text of Nahum, excluding all Bible quotations, is © 2023 by The Gospel Coalition. The Gospel Coalition (TGC) gives you permission to reproduce this work in its entirety, without any changes, in English for noncommercial distribution throughout the world. Crossway, the holder of the copyright to the ESV Bible text, grants permission to include the ESV quotations within this work, in English.In addition, TGC gives you permission to faithfully translate the work into any other language, but you may not translate the English ESV Bible into another language. If you wish to include Bible quotations with the translated work, you will need to obtain permission from a publisher of a Bible translation in the same language. All scripture quotations are taken from the ESV® Bible (the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®) copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. ESV Text Edition: 2016. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated into any other language. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
1:1 An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.
God’s Wrath Against Nineveh
2 The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;
the LORD is avenging and wrathful;
the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The LORD is slow to anger and great in power,
and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bloom of Lebanon withers.
5 The mountains quake before him;
the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who dwell in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
7 The LORD is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
8 But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,1
and will pursue his enemies into darkness.
9 What do you plot against the LORD?
He will make a complete end;
trouble will not rise up a second time.
10 For they are like entangled thorns,
like drunkards as they drink;
they are consumed like stubble fully dried.
11 From you came one
who plotted evil against the LORD,
a worthless counselor.
12 Thus says the LORD,
“Though they are at full strength and many,
they will be cut down and pass away.
Though I have afflicted you,
I will afflict you no more.
13 And now I will break his yoke from off you
and will burst your bonds apart.”
14 The LORD has given commandment about you:
“No more shall your name be perpetuated;
from the house of your gods I will cut off
the carved image and the metal image.
I will make your grave, for you are vile.”
15 2 Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him
who brings good news,
who publishes peace!
Keep your feasts, O Judah;
fulfill your vows,
for never again shall the worthless pass through you;
he is utterly cut off.