The Good News of God’s Vengeance: Nahum’s History and Literary Style

nahum05.jpegWriting about the misguided disinterest many generations of Christians have had towards the Minor Prophets, Thomas McComiskey states,

The corpus of biblical books we call the Minor Prophets has not enjoyed great prominence in the history of biblical interpretation. It is not difficult to understand why this is so. Where is the edification for.a modern Christian in a dirge celebrating the downfall of an ancient city? How can the gloomy forecasts of captivity for Israel and Judah lift the heart today? The Minor Prophets seem to have been preoccupied with nations and events that have little relevance to today’s world. How unlike the New Testament they are! (McComiskey, The Minor Prophets, ix)

If disinterest is a common feature with the Minor Prophets, Nahum may be one of the most ignored or unknown books of this already unknown section of Scripture. Written as a “war-taunt” against Nineveh, the book is replete with God’s judgment on this wicked city. Yes, in response to Jonah it repented of its evil (see Jonah 3), but a century later God sent Nahum to prophesy that the time of this city’s prosperity was over.

Reading this book nearly 3000 years later, we can easily miss its message because its diplomatic history, image-filled poetry, and covenantal theology make its message difficult to grasp. Yet, as McComiskey rightly avers, “A careful study of these prophets [Nahum included] reveals that many of the themes they expound transit the Testaments. They speak of the love of God as well as his justice. Their prophecies are not all doom, but are often rich with hope” (The Minor Prophetsix)

Certainly, this is true with Nahum. In the midst of its darkness and gloom, there are nuggets of gold which the worshiper of God can trust and treasure. As Nahum 1:15 says, “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace!” There is good news in Nahum and it benefits the student of the word to wrestle with the whirlwind revealed in this poetic prophet. Still, to understand the fullness of the message it will require careful study (Psalm 111:2; 2 Timothy 2:7).

So, as we get ready to study this book for the next few weeks, let me highlight some of these features—namely, the history behind the book, the poetry in the book, and the good news which emerges from this book.

Nahum’s History 

The book of Nahum begins, “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh” (1:1). In that introduction, we learn what the book is (an oracle and a vision), what the book is about (the city of Nineveh), and who wrote the book (a prophet named Nahum, who comes from an unknown location called Elkosh). While nothing is known definitively about Nahum or the city from which he comes—one Eastern tradition holds that this city was in Assyria; Jerome locates Jonah’s home in the Galilee; while still others associate him with Capernaum (Nahum’s city)—we know that his book was written to the city of Nineveh near the time of its collapse (cf. Tremper Longman, Nahum765).

From the book itself, we learn the city of Nineveh is still standing and prospering in the time of Nahum, because it was still afflicting harm on Israel (1:12). Likewise, from Nahum 3:8–9 we discover the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes (No-amon) has been destroyed. Hence, the timing of the book is set between 664/663 (the year Thebes was destroyed) and 612 B.C (the year Nineveh was destroyed). By comparison, this places the book roughly one century after Jonah lived, as he ministered during the reign of King Jeroboam II (782–53 B.C.; cf. 2 Kings 14:25–27). Exact dates cannot be known because we don’t know precisely when Jonah was recorded. Still, these dates give us a rough estimate of Nahum’s history.

Speaking theologically, Yahweh used Nineveh as a chosen instrument to chasten Israel and threaten Judah. Nahum makes mention of this in Nahum 1:12 ( “Though I have afflicted you [through the Assyrians], I will afflict you no longer”). And Isaiah 10 also records God’s use of Assyria, as well as their proud downfall. As Isaiah 10 recounts, Assyria proudly took credit for God’s gift of strength. Therefore, to chasten the nation that chastened God’s people, God promised that he would humble them. And Nahum’s prophecy warns of that coming storm.

Speaking historically, the rise and fall of Nineveh can be seen in the following chart (outlined in the ESV Global Study Bible).

Afflictions of Assyria against Israel

Assyrian Ruler Reign Affliction Significance and Biblical References
Shalmaneser III 858–824 B.C. Exacted tribute from “Jehu, son of Omri” according to the Black Obelisk Defeated at Qarqar in 853 B.C. by a Syrian coalition that included “Ahab the Israelite”
Adad-nirari III 811–783 Exacted tribute from Jehoash of Israel His attacks on Damascus enabled Jehoash to recover Israelite cities lost previously to Hazael (2 Kings 13:25)
Tiglath-pileser III (Pul) 745–727 Invaded the land and exacted tribute To avoid deportation, Menahem paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser III (Pul) (2 Kings 15:19–20); Pul deported the Transjordanian tribes (2 Kings 15:291 Chron. 5:26); Pul aided Ahaz of Judah against Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel (2 Kings 16:5–102 Chron. 28:16–21)
Shalmaneser V 727–722 Exacted tribute from Hoshea of Israel; took the northern kingdom (Israel) into exile Hoshea refused to pay tribute and sought Egypt for help, the Assyrians besieged Samaria (2 Kings 17:3–6; 18:9–12)
Sargon II 722–705 Took credit for the invasion and exile of the northern kingdom (Israel) that began under Shalmaneser V Sargon II may be the unnamed king of Assyria in 2 Kings 17:6
Sennacherib 705–681 Invaded Judah Sennacherib besieged Lachish and forced tribute from Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13–16); he besieged Jerusalem and demanded Hezekiah’s surrender (2 Kings 18:17–19:9); the Lord delivered Jerusalem from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:10–37). See also 2 Chronicles 32Isaiah 36–37
Esarhaddon 681–669 Exacted tribute from Manasseh of Judah Mentioned at 2 Kings 19:37as successor to Sennacherib (see also Ezra 4:2)
Ashurbanipal 669–627 Exacted tribute Increasing tensions from Babylonia required Assyria’s direct attention. The increased political freedom of the western city-states is reflected in the reforms instituted by Josiah

From this history, we learn a great deal of the backstory to Nahum and the nation of Assyria. For more than two centuries, the Assyrians enjoyed varying levels of success among their neighbors. They wickedly killed many in Israel, until in 612 B.C. the nation of Babylon destroyed Assyria. Therefore, to understand the brutality of Nahum and the righteousness (and patient) of God, we must consider who the Assyrians were, what they did, and how they had spurned the grace God gave them through Jonah’s ministry.

Nahum’s Literary Context

In addition to the history of Nahum, we must come to grip with its genre and poetic style. On that point, The Literary Study Bible is helpful. Leland Ryken observes,

The overarching genre [of Nahum] is prophecy, which itself is a multiple form. The book of Nahum consists entirely of oracles of judgment, with no appearance of an oracle of redemption or blessing. In the second half of the book we find such genres as the taunt, the pronouncement of woe (the woe formula), and vivid narratives of destruction. There is a sense in which the whole book is an extended taunt, and since the imagery and motifs are consistently military (with God pictured as a divine warrior), we can profitably consider the book war poetry.  (The Literary Study Bible1406)

Applying these labels to sections of the book, we can also see in the following chart how the message of the book begins with a vision of God in chapter 1; the drama builds in chapter 2 as God warns Nineveh of its coming destruction; and it concludes with a lament, or song of woe, over the fallen nation.

Passage Content Prophetic Genre Time Frame
1:1–15 Preview to battle: vision of God as divine warrior about to rescue Judah from Nineveh Visionary portrait Anticipation of coming battle
2:1–3:4 Narrative of the coming sack of the city of Nineveh Visionary narrative Present-tense narrative of a future event
3:5–19 Postmortem taunting of the fallen city of Nineveh Taunt song Present- and future-tense account of a coming event

Throughout the book of Nahum, we catch glimpses of God as a mighty warrior who flashes his glorious power by defeating his evil enemy and saving his people from the afflictions brought on by such a wicked nation. Though such a severe picture of God eradicating wickedness doesn’t match any safe, suburban, Starbucks spirituality; it does answer the martyrs cry for justice and the fact that wickedness continues to shed blood across the globe.

Accordingly, the genre selected for Nahum is not one of bland prose or historical narration. Rather, as most scholars have noted Nahum is one of the most vivid books of prophecy in Scripture. Writing of its style, Tremper Longman observes,

  • The poetical and literary effect on which the book is based are most notable on a written, not an oral, level. (769)
  • Nahum, unlike many prophecies that are based on the structure of an anthology [i.e., a collection of spoken oracles] . . . has a well-delineated literary form. (769)
  • [Citing Robert Lowth], None of the minor prophets . . . seem to equal Nahum in boldness, ardour, and subliminity. His prophecy, too, forms a regular and perfect poem: the exordium is not merely magnificent, it is truly majestic; the preparation for the destruction of Nineveh, and the description of its downfall and destruction, are expressed in the most vivid colours, and are bold and luminous in the hight degree” (771)

In other words, Nahum’s forty-seven verse “war-oracle” is written with exquisite attention to detail, such that the armor of God is seen and the fury of God’s whirlwind is felt. Truly, it is not a cozy book for the spiritually lethargic; it is a book that blasts the trumpet of war and warns that the Lord has awoken from sleep is now ready to destroy the enemies that have ravished his daughters and killed his sons (cf. Psalm 78:65–66 and Ben Shive’s Rise Up).

The Good News of Nahum

This message of God’s judgment is the good news that we find in the book of Nahum. Of course, it will take us some time, effort, and prayer to exactly understand how the Lord’s vengeance is good news for sinners like us. But as Nahum 1:7 suggests, for those who take refuge in the Lord, he will not only relent from destroying them. He will bring them into his family, lavish upon his love, and turn all of his energy to fighting for them.

This he did for his people at the Red Sea. He did the same for Israel throughout it’s history. And in the cross of Christ, we find the greatest expression of God’s justice, where by extinguishing the wrath of God we deserved, Christ’s death in our place secured the mercy of God for all who humbly kiss the Son (cf. Psalm 2).

This is where Nahum’s prophecy is leading, but to fully appreciate its message—its gravitas and goodness—we must remember its historical context and literary structures. We’ve begun to do that above, and in the days ahead we’ll continue to look at this glorious book and the God who brings comfort (Nahum) through righteous judgment.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds



2 thoughts on “The Good News of God’s Vengeance: Nahum’s History and Literary Style

  1. Pingback: Getting Into Nahum, or Finding Comfort in the Lord of Wrath (Nahum 1:1–8) | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: The Sword of the Lord: In Nineveh and Now (Nahum 1:9–2:13) | Via Emmaus

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