How to read Nahum


  • Content: a prophecy of God's judgment against Nineveh (Assyria) for her oppression, cruelty, and idolatry, concluding with the announced destruction of the city

  • Prophet: Nahum, from Judah, otherwise unknown (even his hometown is uncertain)

  • Date of prophetic activity: sometime before the fall of Nineveh in 612 B.C., during the period of Judah's being a vassal to Assyria

  • Emphases: Yahweh's sovereignty over all the nations; Yahweh's execution of just ice against cruelty; Yahweh,s overthrow of the arrogant who think of themselves as eternal


This seventh in the Book of the Twelve is an unrelenting denunciation of and pronouncement of God's judgment against, Assyria for her own unrelenting cruelty as master of the nations. As such, Nahum stands in contrast to the book of Jonah, which depicts at an earlier point in time Yahweh,s concern for even his bitterest enemies (Assyria). But now Assyria,s sin has "reached its full measure" (Gen 15:16), and Yahweh,s famous patience is necessarily at an end. The key to Nahum's message is 1:7-8, which simultaneously expresses comfort to Judah and destruction for Nineveh.

The overall progression of the prophecy can be fairly easily seen. It begins with a Divine Warrior victory hymn (1:2-8), the last lines of which (w 7-8) serve also to introduce the first major oracle (1:9-2:2). This is followed by a vision of Nineveh's ruin (2:3- 10), plus a taunt (w. 1 1- 13). Next come a series of oracles and taunts that declare the absolute certainty of Nineveh's demise (3:1- 17), concluding with a satirical dirge over the fallen empire (w. 18- 19).


The book of Nahum is a carefully crafted brilliantly executed piece of poetry in which a whole variety of prophetic forms-hymn, salvation, doom, taunt, dirge- are carefully interwoven so as to effect what is basically a "woe oracle" over Nineveh (Assyria), along with a salvation oracle to Judah. Part of Nahum's mastery is his immediate introduction of Yahweh (1 :2-6), followed by the interweaving of oracles against Nineveh and to Judah, without mentioning Judah until 1:15 and Nineveh until 2:8 (the NIV supplies the names earlier to help the reader through the alternating pattern in the first oracle; see 'A Walk through Nahum"). All of this is expressed in wonderful poetic style with a whole variety of parallelisms and evocative imagery. An alertness to these various structural and metaphorical matters will enhance your reading of this book.

For the biblical/historical background to Nahum you may want to read 2 Kings 17 -23 and 2 Chronicles 33-34. Three things about this background are essential for understanding Nahum: First, he is prophesying while Assyria is still at the height of her powers (Nah 1,:12), having earlier established her presence in Egypt by conquering Thebes (3:8; ca. 663 B.c.). Second, Assyria was well known among the ancients-indeed the records of her own kings verify it-as the most cruel of conquerors; her treacheries were legendary and barbaric, including the total destruction of peoples that were conquered (as with Israel, for example, who all but lost her identity when the people were resettled in Assyria and the land itself was resettled with pagans; see 2 Kgs 17:3-6,24-41). Third during the whole period in which Nahum could have prophesied the kings of Judah (Manasseh and Josiah) were vassals of Assyria. All of this means that Nahum's prophesying was politically incorrect in every way-except from Yahweh's point of view.

Another important matter: Nahum (like Obadiah) is primarily directed against a foreign nation. As it always is in the Hebrew prophets, the theology that lies behind this is Yahweh's sovereignty over the entire universe, including all the nations as well as Judah, plus his covenant with Abraham in which he promised that "whoever curses you I will curse" (Gen l2:3). Judah's servitude to Assyria-plus her present political insignificance (except for Assyria's need for access to Egypt)-is to be understood in the light of God's omnipotence and justice. Be alert also for the reasons for Yahweh's judgments against Assyria: Besides her idolatries (Nah 1:14)), her most pronounced sin is cruelty and injustice; she has enslaved nations (3:4), her cruelty is endless (3:19), and her merchants have stripped the lands clean (3: 16). Against these evils, God's own goodness and compassion (l:7) stand as polar opposites.



Triumph of the Divine Warrior

Note how the opening psalm is not case-specific, but introduces Yahweh as triumphant in the holy war, who as the all-powerful Ruler of the cosmos (vv. 4-5) takes vengeance on his enemies (w. 2, 6,8)-while at the same time he is the God who is slow to anger, good, and compassionate (w. 3,7; echoing Exo d 34:4-6).


Nineveh's Ruin and Judah's Salvation

The NIV helps you see the alternation between comfort to Judah (1:1 2-13, 15; 2:2) and judgment of Nineveh (1:9-1 1, I 4; 2:1) by adding their names at the appropriate places. After reading them in their canonical order, you might also try reading each set together to get the sense of crescendo in each case. Observe that the last in the series (2:l-2) also serves to set in motion the vision that follows.


Vision and Taunt over Nineveh's Fall

Note how Nahum now picks up "the attacker" from 2:1, describing in striking images the nature of Assyria's overthrow at the hands of Babylon (vv. 3-4,9-10), while Nineveh's own mustering of troops will be of no avail (vv. 5-8). In light of that vision, Nahum then taunts Assyria as a lion (Assyria's national symbol) without a den (w. 1 1- l2), concluding with a word from Yahweh that summarizes both the vision and the taunt (v. 13).


A Pronouncement of Woe and Taunt over Nineveh

Listen to the powerful imagery in the short lines of the pronouncement of doom (w. 1-3), again with Babylonian troops in view, while the reason for doom (v.4) uses the imagery of an alluring harlot as the means of enslaving the nations. Note also how this taunt (vv. 5-7) begins the way 2:11-13 ends: "I am against you,'declares the Lord Almighty"


Concluding Taunts and Dirge over Assyria's Fall

After a satirical taunt over Nineveh (w. 8-1 1; in light of her destruction of Thebes in Egypt), Nahum presents a series of insults (w. 12-17) and concludes with a satirical dirge (w. 18-19) that ends with a question. The only other prophetic book to end this way is Jonah, also regarding Nineveh, whose question stands in instructive contrast to this one.

Nahum reminds us of the essential character of the God whose story

is told in the Bible, a God of goodness and salvation as well as of justice

and judgment standing side by side in a way that is finally exhibited

in the same way in the death of Jesus Christ on a cross.