Though we don’t like to think much about it, the wrath of God is very real – and very terrible. It would be a grave mistake to ignore it.
I was reading a magazine article the other day about the level of corruption in the world. It turns out to be alarmingly high (in case you hadn’t noticed). Corrupt people in positions of power and authority are everywhere, and most of this corruption can be traced to greed. In numerous countries top leaders have amassed personal fortunes in the billions of dollars through graft or by diverting public resources to their own private bank accounts. Lesser officials do the same thing on a smaller scale. Everywhere organized crime flourishes, often with the cooperation of the police. Bribery is a way of life; violence and extortion, kidnaping and hostage-taking are everyday occurrences in many places. Rule is not by law, but by force. As one dictator boasted, “The law is whatever is written above my signature.”
What relevance does the message of an ancient book written more than two thousand years ago have for the corruption-filled world we live in today? Well, the Bible’s message and the modern world intersect in a little-known Old Testament book written by a prophet named Nahum. The book of Nahum is an oracle addressed to Nineveh, the capital city of the ancient empire of Assyria. Nahum’s message is harsh: nothing less than the doom of Nineveh and its whole empire. During the seventh century b.c. Assyria had reached the peak of its power and glory. The Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal ruled the world. Like all his predecessors, he was brutal and cruel beyond belief. Ancient tablets have been discovered by archeologists in which Ashurbanipal boasts of the obscene atrocities he inflicted upon his victims. Nahum wrote his prophecy at about the time Ashurbanipal died (627 b.c.), and in it he predicted the destruction of this great world power at a time when its defeat seemed impossible.
How terrible it will be for Nineveh!
It is a city of murderers!
It is full of liars!
It’s filled with stolen goods!
The killing never stops!
Many people die. . . .
“Nineveh, I am against you,” announces the Lord who rules over all. Nothing can heal your wounds. You will die of them. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?”
(3:1-3, 5a, 19, nirv; nrsv)
Shortly after Nahum spoke those words from God, the empire of Assyria did fall, never to rise again. Its capital, Nineveh, “that great and mighty city,” as Jonah called it, was destroyed in 612 b.c. Ancient historians report how it happened. Nineveh was besieged by the Babylonians, former subjects of the Assyrians who now led a coalition of rebellious peoples against them. The Babylonian army surrounded the city, capturing and destroying its outer defenses until at last they reached the main walls. These walls were Nineveh’s pride and strength. One hundred feet high and wide enough for three chariots to drive abreast along the top, they provided the inhabitants of the city with a sense of invulnerability. But during the siege the river Tigris overflowed, making a breach in those massive walls, and the Babylonian army poured through to raze the city. Nineveh was so completely obliterated that for more than 2,000 years its very location was lost to history. It all happened according to the word of God, proclaimed in advance by his spokesman Nahum.
The message of Nahum is a message of judgment. His entire book is devoted to the news that Nineveh will be destroyed and its inhabitants all killed or enslaved. While all the prophets proclaimed the news of God’s judgment upon sin, in most cases this was tempered with wonderful promises of hope as well. The biblical prophets speak of both the goodness and the severity of God. Though God’s judgment is terrible for those who flaunt his laws, he is gracious and kind to all who turn to him in humble repentance. But in Nahum, the news is all bad, at least for the Assyrians. There is no promise, no hope held out. It’s all judgment.
The book of Nahum begins with a reminder about the nature of God. God is infinitely powerful:
The Lord is slow to get angry.
He is very powerful.
The Lord will not let guilty people go without punishing them.
He causes the mountains to shake.
The hills melt away.
The earth trembles because he is there.
So do the world and all those who live in it.
Who can stand firm when his anger burns?
Who can live when he is angry?
His anger blazes out like fire.
God is not just all-powerful. He is also infinitely holy. He will not, indeed he cannot, ignore or excuse sin. Sin causes his anger to blaze. It will be punished by a God who is holiness and truth personified. So although he is wonderfully patient, giving sufficient opportunity for people to turn back to him (“The Lord is slow to anger”), eventually God’s judgment will fall upon stubborn sinners who persist in doing evil. That time is now approaching for Nineveh, says Nahum.
So the Lord is a holy, justice-bringing God, whose wrath is real and is directed toward those who oppose him (v. 2). This truth, which is consistently taught throughout the scriptures, not only by the Old Testament prophets but by New Testament apostles and most of all by the Lord Jesus himself, is regularly denied by people today. Indeed, there is no other biblical doctrine that so offends modern sensibilities, and therefore is so often rejected. The opinion-makers and shapers in our society prefer to think there is no God at all, and therefore no judgment. Or, if there is a God, he must be a much nicer and gentler God than the God of the biblical prophets. This God is someone who wouldn’t dream of doing anything unpleasant to anybody. Writes the English theologian J. I. Packer:
We do not think much about God’s revealed hatred of sin . . . nor do we “tremble at his word” as our forebears did, fearful lest they offend him . . . It is our habit to think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as “pally” rather than pure, and to dismiss as sub-Christian any idea that God’s first concern in his dealings with us might be to train us in righteousness as a step toward future joy, rather than to load us with present pleasures. We are not in tune with the biblical perception of sin as pollution – dirt, to use a four-letter word – in the eyes of God, and when we find Scripture telling us that there are ways of behaving that God positively hates we treat it as imaginative exaggeration.
(J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit)
Well, there are ways of behaving that God positively hates, as well as prophets like Nahum to tell us all about them. People who dismiss the prophets’ message of judgment and mock or deride their portrait of God, preferring instead to substitute a jolly Santa Claus figure who is always nice to everyone, should realize that what they are doing is rejecting the God of the Bible in favor of a fantasy figure. We may not be comfortable listening to what Nahum tells us about the nature of God and the actions he performs, but his message has one outstanding advantage over every other description of God: this God is real. The God of the prophets is the living God.
Tucked away in chapter one of Nahum, amidst all the terror and doom, is one small ray of hope. His prophecy is not quite all judgment after all. He also says this to us:
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.
It may be only one verse out of three whole chapters, but it is there. “It” is the gospel, the good news of salvation. The Lord is good; he does care for those who trust in him, even Assyrians or Babylonians; even folks like us. Whatever we’ve done, if we trust in him, we will find him good to us. You notice the prophet says nothing about limits on the Lord’s goodness. Nahum doesn’t say the Lord is good to the people of Israel who trust him, or to white people who trust him, or to North Americans who trust him; he is good to “those who trust him.” In other words, anyone who trusts him, everyone who trusts him.
For Israel, the Old Testament people of God, that trust was often not fully understood. They didn’t know quite how it could work for God to forgive their sins and save them from judgment. But much more understanding has been given to us. We know how the justice and mercy of God caused him to send Jesus into the world to become the Savior. We understand that the death of Jesus the sin-bearer is what confirms God’s justice and enables him to offer forgiveness instead of judgment. We know that if we put our trust in Jesus we receive mercy and are delivered from judgment, because Jesus has taken our punishment upon himself at the cross. Blessed are those who take refuge in Christ!
LESSONS ON ACCOUNTABILITY
What do we learn about God and our world from the message of Nahum? We learn about God’s righteous character. The holy God cares about the nations, about the sins of all peoples and all places. The corruption of the world does not go unnoticed by God. Ancient Assyria was a pagan empire. It knew very little about the true God, the God of Israel. It was ignorant of his law. But there is also a law written upon the heart and conscience of every human being, and God will judge all people and nations according to that law. This natural law teaches, among other things, that we ought to be truthful, compassionate and just toward every human being. God will not only judge individuals by this law. The prophets reveal that he will hold entire countries of civilizations responsible if they deviate from his standards of decency and fairness.
We also learn from Nahum that God rules history. The course of history is the story of the rise and fall of human empires and governments, one after another. What history doesn’t teach us, however, is that the nations live under the judgment of God. Kingdoms are brought low, not just by the passing of time or the operation of chance or the forces of politics and economics, but by the hand of a righteous God, who punishes their sins. Not a bad thing for us – and especially for our rulers – to bear in mind.
God is concerned about all the nations, not just those who acknowledge him as God. The Lord is the God of the whole earth and everyone on it. He holds each person and every country accountable for what they do. God will judge the nations and their leaders, and punish all their evil deeds. That is the message of the little book of Nahum. It is bad news for the high and mighty who resist God in their pride, who trample on the rights of others, who persecute their own people, who manipulate “the system” to increase their own wealth and power. It’s bad news for criminals and drug traffickers, for corrupt politicians and officials, for crooked businessmen, for profiteers and exploiters. They need to repent! They must make restitution for their misdeeds. They should hear the warning of a judgment to come.
But this coming judgment is good news for ordinary people trying to live decent lives. It is good news for all those who have been the victims of crime or other evil. It is good news for anyone who is eager to see justice done, who loves right and hates wrong, who is sick about the corruption in the world. Don’t worry too much if it looks as if powerful and corrupt people are getting away with injustice and oppression. Don’t slip into envy of them. Don’t give in to the temptation to hate. Remember that God sees, God knows, God will judge each one according to his or her works. I hope that’s good news for you!
Finally, remember this most important lesson. “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble [including times of judgment upon the nations]. He cares for those who trust in him” (v. 7). But to find this refuge people must trust; they must put their faith and hope in Christ alone. Are you someone who is doing that?