Overview of the Book of Nahum

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Overview of the Book of Nahum
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Overview of the Book of Nahum

Author: The prophet Nahum.

Purpose:

To comfort Judah by announcing future judgments against Nineveh.

Date: 663-612 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God's glory in judgment is worthy of praise.
  • God would judge Nineveh, as well as other nations, for mistreating his people.
  • God would keep his faithful people safe and restore them from destruction and exile.

Author:

The name Nahum means "comfort" and is possibly an abbreviation of a fuller form, such as Nehemiah, which means "Yahweh comforts." This prophet's name is followed by the designation "the Elkoshite" (Nah. 1:1), a possible reference to the location of his birth and/or his later prophetic activities. Attempts to provide a closer identification of Elkosh have been unsuccessful. Proposals have included locations near ancient Nineveh, in Galilee (e.g., Capernaum = town of Nahum) and in Judah. The internal witness of the book (Nah. 1:12, 15) supports Judah as the general vicinity of Nahum's prophetic activity.

As is the case in most prophetic books, the prophet himself receded behind his message. Nahum was often incorrectly regarded as a narrow nationalist who, inspired by feelings of hatred and vengeance, proclaimed his message of judgment against Nineveh and at the same time extended the promise of unconditional salvation to the Judahites, his own people. This view overlooks the reality that this book belongs to the literary form of prophecies against foreign nations (e.g., Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Amos 1-2; Obad. 1:1-21). Nahum, as a true servant of God, was inspired by the knowledge of the Lord's universal dominion over all the kingdoms of this world. In this book we meet a prophet who was deeply aware of the incomparability and power of God. He was also a gifted poet, as was his predecessor Isaiah. Employing a wealth of imagery and pictorial language, he vividly portrayed the total destruction of Nineveh by an anonymous enemy and so voiced the universal relief and joy of all those who had suffered under the oppressive regime of this merciless tyrant.

Time and Place of Writing:

The reference to the coming destruction of Nineveh provides the first clue to the date of this prophecy. Nahum announced this event (Nah. 3:5-7) before it happened (612 B.C.). In Nahum 3:8 the prophet referred to the capture of Thebes, the once magnificent capital of Egypt, by the Assyrian armies of Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) in 663 B.C. It is therefore clear that Nahum was a seventh-century prophet and roughly a contemporary of Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and (possibly) Habakkuk.

A date between 663 and 627 B.C. is probable. During this period two major crises arose in the Assyrian Empire. One came from the side of the Medes and the advancing Scythians (642-638 B.C.). The first and major crisis of this period was the Babylonian Revolt (652-648 B.C.) under the leadership of Ashurbanipal's elder brother, who was supported by the Elamites and peoples from the Iranian highlands. Ripple effects of this revolt were experienced in Canaan and Syria. The revolt was eventually suppressed by a bitter fight that shook the empire. It seems more likely that Nahum's prophetic activities would have been associated with this first crisis rather than with the subsequent trouble with the Medes. At this time, the destruction of Thebes would also still have been alive in the memory of his audience. Therefore, the most plausible date for Nahum's prophecy would be between 660 and 650 B.C., during the days of King Manasseh of Judah, a loyal vassal of Assyria.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The book of Nahum has a double title. It is called "an oracle concerning Nineveh" and "the book of the vision of Nahum" (Nah. 1:1). Oracle often indicates a divine message of judgment against a foreign nation (Isa. 13:1). Vision refers to the unique prophetic experience of receiving the Lord's message. At times a prophet was instructed to write down a specific oracle (Isa. 8:1-4; 30:8) or even "all the words" (Jer 36:2) that the Lord required him to proclaim (Jer. 36:1-32). The written form then provided a strong additional witness to the certainty of the fulfillment of those divine pronouncements. The prophecy's double title therefore constitutes a strong affirmation of the authenticity of this oracle of doom against Nineveh and the inescapability of God's imminent judgment on the Assyrian kingdom.

This often neglected and sometimes disparaged (see "Introduction: Author") book provides us with an important key to understanding the past, present, and future. History does not simply happen; it is determined by the will and power of God. In the opening hymn (Nah. 1:2-8) and especially in Nahum 1:2-3 (the "text" of Nahum's sermon), we learn that the Lord's control over, and guidance of, history is in accordance with his character as the covenant God. He demands undivided submission everywhere and from everyone. Rejection of him and his government leads to chaos. Rebellion of this nature inevitably evokes his displeasure and divine anger and results in just retribution. God's patience must never be misconstrued as weakness. Neither corporate nor individual sins will be left unpunished. By his dynamic word he dictates the events of history. Thus Nahum proclaimed the destruction of Nineveh and invited his people to a joyful celebration of this event long before it took place. It is not the powers of this world that finally determine the course of history, but God and God alone.

The ancient city of Nineveh was a wicked, imperialistic, and deceitful metropolis with an arrogant and unscrupulous hunger for power and domination (Nah. 2:12; 3:1, 4) that was manifested in merciless military violence. In addition to its military prowess, Nineveh was also condemned for its ruthless trade practices and insatiable materialism (Nah. 2:12; 3:16). It was to this evil city that Nahum delivered his message of divine vengeance and retribution (Nah. 1:8, 10, 14-15; 2:10; 3:7-15). No earthly power that defies God ultimately escapes his judgment.

Judgment, however, is not the Lord's final word. His acts of retribution are also acts of redemptive judgment that stand in the service of his love for his people and his covenant with them (Nah. 1:15; 2:2). He destroys the forces of chaos with the purpose of recreating a new world of freedom, peace (Nah. 1:13) and lasting comfort. He knows and cares for those who trust in him (Nah. 1:7).

Christ in Nahum:

The book of Nahum contains no direct Messianic prophecies, yet the expectations of judgment against Nineveh and of salvation for God's faithful people are ultimately fulfilled by Christ. Jesus and his apostles declared salvation for God's people and judgment against his enemies. In fact, Christ began this judgment and salvation in his first coming (John 5:22-30). The spiritual warfare in which the Church is constantly engaged (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 6:10-17) continues this process today. Moreover, when Christ returns in glory he will destroy all opposing powers and hand over the Kingdom to his Father "so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries and adjunct Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.