THE VENGEANCE OF THE LORD
THE prophet Nahum, as we have seen, arose probably in Judah, if not about the same time as Zephaniah and Jeremiah, then a few years later. Whether he prophesied before or after the great Reform of 621 we have no means of deciding. His book does not reflect the inner history, character, or merits of his generation. His sole interest is the fate of Nineveh. Zephaniah had also doomed the Assyrian capital, yet he was much more concerned with Israel’s unworthiness of the opportunity presented to them. The yoke of Asshur, he saw, was to be broken, but the same cloud which was bursting from the north upon Nineveh must overwhelm the incorrigible people of Jehovah. For this Nahum has no thought. His heart, for all its bigness, holds room only for the bitter memories, the baffled hopes, the unappeased hatreds of a hundred years. And that is why we need not be anxious to fix his date upon one or other of the shifting phases of Israel’s history during that last quarter of the seventh century. For he represents no single movement of his fickle people’s progress, but the passion of the whole epoch then drawing to a close. Nahum’s book is one great At Last!
And, therefore, while Nahum is a worse prophet than Zephaniah, with less conscience and less insight, he is a greater poet, pouring forth the exultation of a people long enslaved, who see their tyrant ready for destruction. His language is strong and brilliant; his rhythm rumbles and rolls, leaps and flashes, like the horsemen and chariots he describes. It is a great pity the text is so corrupt. If the original lay before us, and that full knowledge of the times which the excavation of ancient Assyria may still yield to us, we might judge Nahum to be an even greater poet than we do.
We have seen that there are some reasons for doubting whether he wrote the first chapter of the book, but no one questions its fitness as an introduction to the exultation over Nineveh’s fall in chapters 2 and 3. The chapter is theological, affirming those general principles of Divine Providence, by which the overthrow of the tyrant is certain and God’s own people are assured of deliverance. Let us place ourselves among the people, who for so long a time had been thwarted, crushed, and demoralized by the most brutal empire which was ever suffered to roll its force across the world, and we shall sympathize with the author, who for the moment will feel nothing about his God, save that He is a God of vengeance. Like the grief of a bereaved man, the vengeance of an enslaved people has hours sacred to itself. And this people had such a God! Jehovah must punish the tyrant, else were He untrue. He had been patient, and patient, as a verse seems to hint, just because He was omnipotent, but in the end He must rise to judgment. He was God of heaven and earth, and it is the old physical proofs of His power, so often appealed to by the peoples of the East, for they feel them as we cannot, which this hymn calls up as Jehovah sweeps to the overthrow of the oppressor. "Before such power of wrath who may stand? What think ye of Jehovah?" The God who works with such ruthless, absolute force in nature will not relax in the fate He is preparing for Nineveh. "He is one who maketh utter destruction," not needing to raise up His forces a second time, and as stubble before fire so His foes go down before Him. No half-measures are His, Whose are the storm, the drought, and the earthquake.
Such is the sheer religion of the Proem to the Book of Nahum-thoroughly Oriental in its sense of God’s method and resources of destruction; very Jewish, and very natural to that age of Jewish history, in the bursting of its long-pent hopes of revenge. We of the West might express these hopes differently. We should not attribute so much personal passion to the Avenger. With our keener sense of law, we should emphasize the slowness of the process, and select for its illustration the forces of decay rather than those of sudden ruin. But we must remember the crashing times in which the Jews lived. The world was breaking up. The elements were loose, and all that God’s own people could hope for was the bursting of their yoke, with a little shelter in the day of trouble. The elements were loose, but amidst the blind crash the little people knew that Jehovah knew them.
"A God jealous and avenging is Jehovah; Jehovah is avenger and lord of wrath; Vengeful is Jehovah towards His enemies, And implacable He to His foes."
"Jehovah is long-suffering and great in might, Yet He will not absolve. Jehovah! His way is in storm and in hurricane, And clouds are the dust of His feet. He curbeth the sea, and drieth it up; All the streams hath He parched. Withered be Bashan and Carmel";
"The bloom of Lebanon is withered. Mountains have quaked before Him, And the hills have rolled down. Earth heaved at His presence, The world and all its inhabitants. Before His rage who may stand, Or who abide in the glow of His anger? His wrath pours forth like fire, And rocks are rent before Him."
"Good is Jehovah to them that wait upon Him in the day of trouble, And He knoweth them that trust Him. With an overwhelming flood He makes an end of His rebels, And His foes He comes down on with darkness".
"What think ye of Jehovah? He is one that makes utter destruction; Not twice need trouble arise. For though they be like plaited thorns, And sodden as They shall be consumed like dry stubble".
"Came there not out of thee one to plan evil against Jehovah, A counselor of mischief?"
"Thus saith Jehovah many waters, yet shall they be cut off and pass away, and I will so humble thee that I need humble thee no more; and Jehovah hath ordered concerning thee, that no more of thy seed be sown: from the house of thy God, I will cut off graven and molten images. I will make thy sepulchre"
Disentangled from the above verses are three which plainly refer not to Assyria but to Judah. How they came to be woven among the others we cannot tell. Some of them appear applicable to the days of Josiah after the great Reform.
"And now will I break his yoke from upon thee, And burst thy bonds asunder."
"Lo, upon the mountains the feet of Him that bringeth good tidings, That publisheth peace! Keep thy feasts, O Judah, fulfill thy vows:"
"For no more shall the wicked attempt to pass through thee; Cut off is the whole of him. For Jehovah hath turned the pride of Jacob, Like to the pride of Israel For the plunderers plundered them, And destroyed their vine branches."