Nahum the prophet
All we know about Nahum comes from the book itself. He came from Elkosh, but we do not know where this was. At least four different locations have been suggested, from Judah to Assyria! Most commentators assume that he delivered his prophecies in Jerusalem (or at least Judah), but he could perhaps have been one of the people previously deported from Israel to Assyria or scattered among the nations (Je. 23:1–3; Ezk. 11:16; Joel 3:2).
Nahum means ‘consolation, comfort’. The root has a meaning ‘be relieved by taking vengeance’ (Is. 1:24; 57:6), and this would be especially fitting for Nahum. Comfort and relief is brought to God’s people when he takes vengeance on their enemies!
Nahum probably lived shortly before the destruction of the Assyrian Empire which was assured by the fall of Nineveh in 612 bc and which is the event upon which he focuses. He probably prophesied after the sack of Thebes on the Nile in 663 as this seems to be referred to in 3:8. (See the chart ‘The prophets’ in Song of Songs.)
The historical situation
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the most cruel and ruthless nation of the ancient world. The Assyrians terrified their intended victims because not only did they destroy and burn the cities they conquered, they also subjected the inhabitants to various kinds of suffering and humiliation.
One king, Ashurbanipal, boasted in the following terms about some plotters that he had foiled: ‘As for those common men who had spoken derogatory things against my god Asher and had plotted against me, the prince who reveres him, I tore out their tongues and abased them. As a posthumous offering I smashed the rest of the people alive by the very figures of the protective deities between which they had smashed Sennacherib my grandfather. Their cut up flesh I fed to the dogs, swine, jackals, birds, vultures, to the birds of the sky, and to the fishes of the deep pools’.
The Assyrians were the ones who had destroyed Samaria and with it the northern kingdom. In 2 Ki. 17:5 it says, ‘The king of Assyria … laid siege to it [Samaria] for three years’. We can imagine the people getting hungrier, more desperate and more hopeless, as they looked out on the Assyrian army, an invincible multitude. They also knew that these soldiers were completely ruthless. They would flay people alive—strip the skin off them and drag them off with hooks in their flesh. And if the people didn’t already know what their enemies were capable of, the Assyrians would have reminded them every day (cf. the speech of the Assyrian field commander to Hezekiah in Is. 26:4–10). In the British Museum there are stone carvings taken from Nineveh which show how the Assyrians dealt with conquered cities. One shows a great heap of heads. The picture of the siege of Lachish shows three men impaled on wooden stakes outside the city, a grisly visual aid to those who were still shut up inside.Captives were often mutilated by cutting off hands, feet, noses, ears or tongues. A relief from Khorsabad shows Assyrian chariots driving over mutilated bodies. Infants were often dashed in pieces (Na. 3:10; cf. Ps. 137:9). Women might be taken as spoil and pregnant women were usually disembowelled.
Having conquered a city, the Assyrians would take steps to see that they did not have any more trouble there in future. So, when Samaria fell in 721 bc 27,000 were exiled and a comparable number of deportees from other places was brought in. This destroyed the unity and even identity of the nation and made it very difficult to organize resistance in future.
We can see why people were (and still are) worried about the idea that God would allow Assyrians to carry out judgment on his behalf. Nevertheless, the Bible says in several places that the Assyrians were his instruments of judgment.
Nahum comes long after the fall of Samaria. The city of Nineveh fell in 612 bc, and Nahum is to be placed shortly before this. Ninety years is a long time to wait for the judgment of an evil nation. Incidentally, Jonah carried out his ministry to Nineveh quite some time before 721. He is mentioned in 2 Ki. 14:25 (which refers to the reign of Jeroboam II, 782–753) as having prophesied previously.
Though God’s judgment may be delayed, it is never forgotten; he cares passionately about right and wrong. The book of Nahum makes that abundantly clear.
The message of Nahum
Nahum is a passionate little book with one main message: the Lord brings punishment upon Assyria because of their gross sin. The way that Nahum expresses his message has caused distress to some sensitive commentators! The tone is set at the outset (1:2) where it says literally, ‘The Lord is jealous and avenging, avenging and a lord of wrath, taking vengeance on his adversaries, keeping [it] with respect to his enemies’.
The word translated ‘jealous’ comes from a root meaning ‘ardour, zeal, jealousy’. It can indicate jealousy in a wrong sense or envy (Gn. 26:14; 30:1; 37:11; Ps. 73:3), but most often it means to be justifiably jealous (e.g. Nu. 5:14, 30) or to have a right zeal (e.g. Nu. 11:29; 25:11). The words translated ‘avenging, takes vengeance’ come from a root which can be used in a bad sense i.e. to entertain vengeful feelings against a neighbour. This is forbidden in Lv. 19:18 and contrasted with love, ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself.’ Usually, however, as here, it is used of vengeance that is right and just (Nu. 31:2–3; Dt. 32:43). ‘Filled with wrath’ indicates heat, rage, burning anger and fury (Gn. 27:44–45; Dn. 8:6).
So, the book of Nahum is a passionate book. The God of the Bible is not cool, remote and imperturbable like the Greek philosophical ideal. He looks down upon humankind, sees their wickedness and says in effect, ‘How dare you behave in my world like this? I made you, and you have no life, no right of existence without me, no future unless you are in harmony with me. Whatever is wrong in the world has got to be put right—and I’ll see that it is.’
This sort of idea does not go down well with the average educated person today, and the book of Nahum provides a powerful reminder to us that God cares about his world, and will judge sin. Of course, we need to remind ourselves that God’s passion is not like our passion, his anger is not like our anger. It is righteous and pure; 1:3 provides the corrective we need, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and great in power’. The prophet then returns, however, to his original emphasis: ‘The Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished’.
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. W. Baker, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, TOTC (IVP, 1988).
R. J. Coggins, Israel among the Nations: Nahum, Obadiah, Esther, ITC (Handsel, 1985).
———, published in USA as Nahum, Obadiah. Esther: Israel among the Nations (Eerdmans, 1985).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 2, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
E. Achtemeier, Nahum–Malachi (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1985).
C. E. Amerding, Nahum, Habakkuk, EBC (Zondervan, 1985).
O. P. Robertson, The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, NICOT (Eerdmans, 1990).
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
ITC International Theological Commentary
DSB Daily Study Bible
EBC Expositor’s Bible Commentary
NICOT The New International Commentary on the Old Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Nah 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.