Nahum Says, God is Angry

Sermon Series: Minor Prophets – Imagining a Better Story

Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – July 28, 2019

This morning we’re continuing our series on the Minor Prophets. If you’ve been around for the summer, maybe you’ve noticed there’s some heavy stuff here. I actually surprised myself this week with just how hard this book is. I really do believe there’s a good word for us here. I just want you to know when it gets uncomfortable or heavy, that we’re in this together.

Part 1: All About Nahum

Nahum is a really difficult book because there’s a lot of God being angry. And it’s a short book, only 3 chapters, there aren’t really other parts to preach from. What’s special about Nahum though, is not just that he’s angry. Most prophets in our Bible speak to Israel or Judah. God’s words for God’s people. But Nahum directly addresses the Assyrian Empire. The enemies of God’s people. The Assyrians were known for their ruthless and brutal tactics of expansion. It was all efficiency, really. If they effectively terrorize, torture and destroy one city that rebels, anyone else who hears about it is likely to just give in without a fight. That’s how the Assyrians built their empire. They were very skilled at crushing enemies.

Now it makes sense that Nahum has some angry words, right? Nahum tells the Bad Guys that they will get just as crushed as all the folks who they have been crushing. At its core, It’s a challenge to abandon any attempts at invincibility and get behind God’s way. But there’s no “turn and burn” to Nahum, it’s just “burn” with an added “no one will be sorry to see you go.”

That might make us uncomfortable as readers.

But here’s the real punch to Nahum. Most of the book is written in second person, addressed to “you”. Nahum tells Assyria, “you can strengthen your defenses, but your city will surely fall” It makes his address feel extra personal and fierce, even though he’s sharing this message with people in Judah, in his own land, not actually saying this to an Assyrian’s face. The thing is, only once does Nahum mention Assyria. Only once does he name their city, Nineveh, as he describes its destruction. Even when he switches to say something to Judah, he doesn’t always include a name. The whole rest of the text it’s just “you you you you….” This is on purpose. Nahum’s striking image of Assyria getting destroyed is just as easy to apply to Israel. Or Babylon.

Or us. Remember these books haven’t survived so long because they had a good word for someone else. There’s a word for us here. I’m going to read the chapter 1, take it in. Picture the God that Nahum is describing and see if it sounds like your God.

The Lord is a jealous and vengeful God;
the Lord is vengeful and strong in wrath.
The Lord is vengeful against his foes;
he rages against his enemies.
3 The Lord is very patient but great in power;
the Lord punishes.
His way is in whirlwind and storm;
clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He can blast the sea and make it dry up;
he can dry up all the rivers.
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bud of Lebanon withers.
5 The mountains quake because of him;
the hills melt away.
The earth heaves before him—
the world and all who dwell in it.
6 Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can confront the heat of his fury?
His wrath pours out like fire;
the rocks are shattered because of him.
7 The Lord is good,
a haven in a day of distress.
He acknowledges those who take refuge in him.
8 With a rushing flood, he will utterly destroy her[a] place
and pursue his enemies into darkness.

9 What are you plotting against the Lord?
He is one who can annihilate!
Distress will not arise twice.
10 They are tangled up like thorns,
like drunkards in their cups.
They are consumed like stubble
that is entirely dried up.
11 From you[b] goes out
one who plots evil against the Lord—
a worthless counselor!

12 The Lord proclaims:
Though once they were a healthy and numerous force,
they have been cut off and have disappeared.
I have afflicted you;
I won’t afflict you further
13 Now I will break off his yoke from you
and tear off your chains.

14 The Lord has commanded concerning you:
You will have no children to carry on your name.
I will remove carved idol and cast image from the house of your gods;
I will make your grave, for you are worthless.
15 [d] Look, on the mountains: the feet of a messenger who announces peace!
Celebrate your festivals, Judah!
Fulfill your solemn promises!
The worthless one will never again invade you;
he has been completely cut off.

Wow, so Nahum has set out to paint a picture of how appropriately scary God is. It’s like we’re seeing like the Mama Bear side of God? When there’s someone in your life, a mom or otherwise, who you know will personally become a hurricane and crush everyone in her path to get to you if you’re in trouble, that can be a pretty secure feeling.

Here’s a question that I’m sitting with as I read Nahum’s striking imagery. How do I know if God is on my side?

If God is angry, if God is punishing, if God is this whirlwind waiting to happen, how do I know if it’s coming after me, or coming on my behalf? Whose side is God on?

Am I sure God’s on my side because I trust Jesus, or depending on my life choices, or my mood, or God’s mood? Nahum is calling into question even that question. The picture we see in Nahum 1 is that nobody get’s guaranteed seats on God’s side. When we’re faced with a God who is “great in patience and great in power” we can’t expect God to back us up all the time. If God is a tornado of power, we don’t get to tell it where to go. There’s a clue here back in verse 7.

The Lord is good, a refuge in the day of distress. The Lord acknowledges those who take refuge in him.”

Notice that this verse is not a turn from a destroying God to a comforting God. It’s right in the middle.

God is both the invincible destroyer and the safe place. God is a refuge and also God is the day of distress. God’s about breaking chains, and breaking chain makers. The invitation is for us to set our eyes on that whirlwind of power and jealousy and anger, and move towards God. That’s where the good is. It’s planning against God, around God, or in spite of God that sets you up for disaster. (vv.9-11) My first instinct there is to nervously bring all my plans to God for approval. But the real point is that God is the one making the plans. God made everything to work together in the good world for mutual flourishing. that’s the kind of plans God has, and we get to be a part. The empires that God is raging against in Nahum have made their own plans that have nothing to do with the peace, justice, and generosity that God hard-wired into the world God made.

Part 2: How and Why Empires Fall

We’re going to skip ahead to chapter 3 because this is the part where Nahum really lays out to Assyria what they’ve done that so angered God, and what they can expect in return. Nahum 2:11-3:3

“I am against you,”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“I will burn up your chariots in smoke,
    and the sword will devour your young lions.
    I will leave you no prey on the earth.
The voices of your messengers
    will no longer be heard.”

Woe to the city of blood,
    full of lies,
full of plunder,
    never without victims!
The crack of whips,
    the clatter of wheels,
galloping horses
    and jolting chariots!
Charging cavalry,
    flashing swords
    and glittering spears!
Many casualties,
    piles of dead,
bodies without number,
    people stumbling over the corpses—

BODIES EVERYWHERE!  That’s Nahum’s next charge against Assyria. That human centered, human-serving power is destined to be exposed and obliterated.

The piles of dead people, the bloodshed, this isn’t a particularly religious gesture. But it is very much a SACRIFICE to their power. Nahum is counting against them the cost in human life that they are willing to pay for their expanding power.

Assyria’s final strike is actually her military invincibility. Nahum uses the city of Thebes as his example for this. I didn’t remember Thebes so here’s your refresher, Thebes was the best defended city of its day. The saying was that Thebes was the unconquerable city. Sure enough, Assyria eventually took down even this amazingly well fortified city. Nahum’s logic is, if Thebes was invincible and you crushed that city, your takeaway shouldn’t be that you’re the new invincible king of the hill. Your lesson should be that NO HUMAN FORTRESS is actually invincible. NAHUM 3:8-11

Are you better than Thebes,
    situated on the Nile,
    with water around her?
The river was her defense,
    the waters her wall.
Cush and Egypt were her boundless strength;
    Put and Libya were among her allies.
Yet she was taken captive
    and went into exile.
Her infants were dashed to pieces
    at every street corner.
Lots were cast for her nobles,
    and all her great men were put in chains.
You too will become drunk;
    you will go into hiding
    and seek refuge from the enemy.

All your fortresses are like fig trees
    with their first ripe fruit;
when they are shaken,
    the figs fall into the mouth of the eater.

Instead of seeing the nations she’s conquered as weaker than she is, Assyria should see them as just an example of the defeat she too will suffer. Because NO nation is invincible. Then Nahum throws in this image of a fig tree that the fruits just fall right off of. This is not a diseased fig tree. Ripening and falling off is the normal progression of the fruit you’d expect it to produce. It’s Nahum’s way of saying, “you’re no different than any other nation! Maybe you think you’re the first tree ever that’s going to produce grenades instead of figs but that’s definitely not what’s going to happen.”

My favorite prophetic images are the nations all gathering together on God’s mountain, or the feast where God sets the table and everyone gets to eat. But these destruction death-clarations are important too. Because when a powerful nation controls most of the known world, it can be hard to even imagine them not being in control. I think many of us as Americans can relate to this. It’s hard for me to imagine a version of the world that doesn’t involve America in control.

There was a time many years ago, when I was trying to make sense of Revelation and the End Times. In case you may also be in a similar time of your life, I want you to know that Revelation is not about the End Times, anyone who tells you as much is trying too hard. But I too was trying too hard. I was reading these theories about which beast might be which nation, and different folks saying this is Russia or this is the EU, or I think I found the Antichrist. But the unsettling thing, for me and for everyone writing these, is that nobody could find the United States. There didn’t seem to be an American flag anywhere on the fields of Armaggeddon. And you could kind of feel this unspoken question and fear, what if America doesn’t make it to the end times? Can we even imagine what would have to happen in the next 30 years, or whatever your end times timeline is, for America to not even register in any of the major prophesied events?

It’s unsettling because America often seems to be running the world. Almost any international conflict or economic crisis anywhere in the world can expect some kind of American intervention. American cultural influence and media is all over the globe, and American economic interests are bound up in the fates and fortunes of billions and billions of people even when we think we’re not doing anything. People I’ll never meet all over the world have provided the “ordinary” things I use just to go to work or eat my lunch. It blows my mind how we’re so wrapped up in each others’ worlds and yet it’s invisible to me most of the time. This is just the Way Things Are. And because I can’t even imagine a different way, I become convinced that this is the Way Things Will Always Be.

I want to be clear here. I am not qualified nor would it be helpful for me to sort current or events into “America’s fault” or “Not America’s Fault” or to say that America is the victim in this economic situation and the perpetrator in another. I have many reasons to enjoy living in America, and many reasons to feel uncomfortable or discouraged about living in America, and some of them are the same reasons. One of my top reasons is that I love living in a very safe place. I don’t think a bomb has ever dropped on Michigan. Michigan has not faced foreign occupation since the war of 1812, like think those cannons on the fort on Mackinac Island. It is really hard for me to imagine an invasion or a battle or a stream of refugees pouring out of Michigan over the border to Canada or something. That safety is really important to me, and here’s the part I don’t like, it’s rooted in American military invincibility. What Nahum is waving in our face here is that this power, this comfort, this safety comes at a cost. Even though that security is a blessing, Nahum says that the sacrifices we make to attain it are counted against us. American soldiers in combat, and veteran suicides, and civilian and military deaths overseas, drone strikes and surveillance, if I’m honest, those things do not at all make me comfortable to think about but they make me very comfortable in the way I live. So Nahum says to me that I have an idol on my hands! There’s a power other than God whose promises of my safety and comfort I trust. And even though I don’t decide who lives and dies, I have still accepted these sacrifices as the cost for the safety I need.

I don’t want to go there! This isn’t helpful! I’m not killing anyone! I don’t even know what all the America Military is up to and how is that possibly my fault! I want to say “what’s wrong with being safe, Nahum? What’s wrong with wanting my children to grow up and have children of their own?” But Nahum won’t take the bait. He just keeps volleying back that emphatic NO to any attempts at invincibility.

Nahum says every empire is already on its way to being ruins. Nahum 3:14-19

Draw water for the siege,
    strengthen your defenses!
Work the clay,
    tread the mortar,
    repair the brickwork! 
There the fire will consume you;
    the sword will cut you down—
Nothing can heal you;
    your wound is fatal.
All who hear the news about you
    clap their hands at your fall,
for who has not felt
    your endless cruelty?

That is the very end of Nahum. What a hard word! It’s a victory song in a way and also a warning to everyone who is DEPENDING on any kind of invincibility. The good news and the bad news is that from God’s perspective every empire is doomed. God doesn’t include an option for becoming a better, kinder version of invincible power. It’s all or nothing. If we’re even asking whether God is on the side of this nation of that nation, we’re asking the wrong question because God is only interested in who chooses to be on God’s side. Whatever hope or confidence we have that is dependent on man-made safety, whether that’s military security or financial success, or education or physical strength, is incompatible with taking our refuge in God.

Part 3: How Would Jesus Preach Nahum

Y’all this is exhausting to think about. And at some point I wondered, how would Jesus handle Nahum? Would Jesus have preached this stuff? Would he have said “this is kind of missing the point,” or “God doesn’t go around like that anymore.”?

And what I discovered is actually Jesus says a number of things that are very Nahum in character, it’s just easier to ignore them if we’re also ignoring Nahum. Reading Jesus after reading Nahum is kind of like going back to read pre-Disney versions of fairy tales and you find out they were pretty gory all along. The “turn” parts of Jesus get a lot more press than the “Burn” parts, but Jesus definitely has the burn in there too.

Like if you remember the parable of the wheat and weeds, or wheat and tares. This farmer finds that his field of wheat has had weed seeds mixed in by his enemies. And the parable ususally ends with the farmer telling his farmhands, just let them all grow together, no worries. But the parable actually ends with…and then at the harvest they shall be separated and burned. Or the parable with the talents, where a master goes on a long trip and entrusts 3 servants with money to invest. Well apparently a side plot to this parable is that the people of the land stage a coup while the Master is gone, and when he returns his enemies are executed before him. Yikes.

So Jesus can’t help us dial down Nahum. What Jesus does help with is putting flesh and bones on the God that Nahum describes.

Does Jesus Thunder above the Waters? Yes. and they listen to him and are still.

Does Jesus go around telling people Woe to you for this, Doom to you for that, yes he does! For the same things! Because, like all the prophets, Jesus comes with a relationship at stake that is too important to risk not saying anything. Jesus comes saying “enough with these chains!” and “enough with these chain-makers!”

Does Jesus Crush the Empire? Yes, with his broken body and blood poured out.

Jesus is vulnerable as well as invincible. Declaring God’s power and vengeance without taking that power into his own hands. He’s a model in the flesh of what it means for God to be with us and yet not taking sides with us.

Jesus would totally preach Nahum, and he would do it much better than I. Because Jesus literally gave his life to show the seemingly invincible powers of death, violence, and the actual Roman Empire that they are DOOMED. ON THEIR WAY TO RUINS.

Jesus brought this resurrection CHECKMATE to every story that says violence is the only way to power, power is the only way to live, death and fear are the ultimate weapons. Jesus’ death and resurrection exposed their promises as LIES.

JESUS said to every power that could attempt to separate you from God’s love and God’s family, to every lie, every fear, every addiction, every despair, every threat You are WORTHLESS! I WILL MAKE YOUR GRAVE! I WILL UTTERLY DESTROY YOU!

What are you plotting against the Lord? He is the one who can annihilate!
Who can stand before his indignation! I will break off his yoke from you and tear off your chains!

That is the very message Jesus carried to every power in heaven and earth through his death and resurrection.

Jesus promises me a better peace than the peace I have bartered for through the promise of an invincible military. Jesus has made a way for me into a safety that is much more secure. And he invites me into that peace as both the refuge for the fearful, and the destroyer of the strong. The safe place, and the tornado-on-a-warpath. That is the heart of Nahum’s message. God in Christ is still breaking down every power that sets itself up against God—this applies to both the powers that are getting us down and the powers we’re trusting in, the ones we’re a part of.

Jesus understands how very very hard and scary it is to live outside of the promises of invincibility, Empire, idols. It is so hard that Jesus died for it. And the only thing that makes it at all safe is that we have a very secure fortress in which to take refuge. A God of great patience and great power, who is not “on our side” and who never gives up on us. This IS the way of the cross.

Whatever it is that God is stirring in your heart, to respond to God or to just bring your own fears and needs before your maker, that’s what the rest of our worship time is for. I’d like to offer a few prayer senses from our prayer team. If any of these speak to you, we’d especially love to pray with you today in our prayer station.

Prayer Senses:

There is a corporate encouragement to pursue spiritual gifts and prophecy as a church.
Healing: neck pain, mental distress.
Repentance for control and freedom from fear

God wants to release freedom, faith and courage over you. Especially for those facing anxiety at work, financial stress, and decisions about the future.