Who Was Nahum?
Nahum is the last of the Assyrian Period prophets. That means that his is the last prophetic ministry which was active during the time Assyria ruled the world. He is also associated with the Assyrian Period because he addressed Nineveh with an oracle of condemnation describing Assyrias destruction. Nahums contemporaries, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, are considered Babylonian Period prophets because their ministries began shortly after Nahum and after the fall of Nineveh.
Although Nahum himself tells us that he is from Elkosh (1:1), we are unsure of where Elkosh is (or was). Tradition has him buried in a city east of the Tigris River in ancient Assyria which claims to be his home town, but this is highly unlikely1. Other tradition puts Elkosh in Galilee, either at an old village called Elkese or Capernaum. Capernaum means "City of Nahum", but there isnt any historical evidence this was Nahums home2 (although he does speak of landmarks in northern Palestine). Most Old Testament scholars think that the most likely place of Nahums residence, given the fact that Israel in the north had already been destroyed by Assyria, was in southern Judah.`
Nahums literary style gives us a little clue as to his person. Freeman says, "The prophecy is poetic in form and of excellent classical quality, being admitted by all scholars as comparable with Isaiah, and one of the finest in the Old Testament"3. While being careful not to jump to an unfounded conclusion, we can at least say that Nahum was a "man of letters". Probably well educated, his writings give evidence of both scholarship in the Law as well as zeal for the holiness of God (see 1:2, 7; 2:2).
Several prophets are known to be from this period: Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Huldah (a prophetess), and Uriah (beheaded for preaching contrary to false prophets).
The Background for Nahum
The Political Scene
Nahum preached during the final days of the Assyrian Empire. To the north of Nineveh (see the map, next page), Scythians from the ancient Russian steppes were attacking the empire and causing severe problems. The threats to the Assyrian Empire were numerous. In addition to the Scythian invasion,
2 Chronicles 33-36 mentions both directly and indirectly many of the political events taking place over the few decades between the end of King Manassehs reign in Judah and the death of his grandson King Josiah. The nations mentioned there include, besides Judah, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia.
For Judah, the result of Assyrias troubles was that many activities normally discouraged or even punished as being contrary to Assyrian policy could be carried out freely. This environment is what helped Josiah carry out his extensive religious reforms.
The Spiritual Scene
In the background information on the prophet Micah we mentioned the alliance King Ahaz made with Assyria. One of the results of that alliance was the establishment of the Assyrian cultic worship in the Temple of Yahweh. Ahazs son, Hezekiah, sought to bring an end to Judahs idolatry, but his efforts were short-lived. Hezekiahs son, Manasseh, lead Judah deeper into the Assyrian cultic practices.
At the end of his life Manasseh repented of his idolatry and attempted a reform in Judah, but he was unsuccessful. Manassehs son Amon wasnt affected at all by the late repentance of his father.
Amon took the throne and followed the early example of his father but even more so. Amon "multiplied guilt" (2 Chron. 33:23). He was assassinated only two years after becoming king.
Josiah, Amons son, was only 8 years old when he became king, but he sincerely began seeking the Lord at the age of sixteen. He "did not turn aside to the right or to the left" (2 Chron. 34:2). At the age of twenty he began an energetic reform to remove all forms of idolatry: cultic worship centers, carved idols, molded idols, incense altars, and whatever else was not a part of pure Yahweh worship. He even sprinkled the dust of the destroyed idols on the graves of those who followed these false gods (2 Chron. 34:4).
Part of Josiahs reforms included repairing the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. During the repair project a priest named Hilkiah found a copy of "the law of the Lord given by Moses" (2 Chron. 34:14) and had it taken to Josiah. When Josiah heard the words of the law, he was horror-stricken. In light of the strict obedience required of the Law and the threats of Yahweh to expel Israel for disobedience, he realized that his reforms did not quite measure up to what was truly needed (2 Chron. 34:20, 21).
Josiah increased the intensity and urgency of his reforms. It is to his credit that even though the prophetess Huldah said Yahweh would not bring evil upon Judah during Josiahs days (because of his deep repentance and response), he still pursued a thorough religious purging. He even went so far as to attack the pagan worship centers in Samaria and beyond, tearing down altars and destroying idolatrous worship centers. He also closed many places of worship that were dedicated to Yahweh because of the Laws prescription that Jerusalem alone be the place were the God of Israel would meet with His people (2 Kings 23:4-20).
A glaring oversight in Judah and Israel both, which Josiah was eager to reinstate, was the celebration of the Passover. As Bruce puts it,
The actual date of Nahums ministry has a large bearing on the impact of his preaching. If Nahum preached during the latter days of Josiahs father, Amon, then the reforms of Josiah would have been seen as Gods vindication of His people and His messages of wrath upon Judahs enemies. The timing of Nahums message, however, would have raised a few eyebrows.
During Amons reign and into the first few years of Josiahs reign, Assyria still held dominance over the middle eastern world. Troubles were increasing, but the destruction of Assyria was not within human sight. Nahums promise from God that Assyria would, indeed, reap in kind their own atrocities and barbarisms was a somber consolation to Judah. In times of stress and oppression, Nahums message demonstrates the true sovereignty of God even over evil.
Outline of Nahum
Title: Foundations for Courage
Theme: Building a Persevering Spirit
We can persevere through all circumstances knowing that:
1. God Reigns as Sovereign, Righteous Lord (1:2-8)
2. God Sovereignly Executes Judgment (1:9-15)
3. God is bringing the Day of Judgment as Promised (2:1-13)
4. God will raise His standard of Righteousness over Nineveh (3:1-19)
The Message of Nahum
Building a persevering spirit needs both endurance and faith. Nahums message addresses both of these needs to the people of Judah at a time when the Assyrian threat was still very strong, before the reforms of Josiah. The fall of Nineveh and the destruction of Assyria came very shortly after Nahums prophecy, but until news came of the empires devastation, Judah needed to stand firm in their worship of Yahweh.
Judah was full of altars and worship centers representing the gods of their masters, the Assyrians. They needed to be challenged to take refuge in Yahweh rather than give in to the ease of conformity. To bring this challenge, Nahum provided a beautifully written message that addresses the incessant debate about evil in the world.
The themes of Nahum are similar to Habakkuks question of God tolerating evil. For Habakkuk, he wanted to know how God could tolerate evil among His own people. For Nahum, he wanted Judah to know the truth behind what appears to be tolerance for evil; namely, how long can God take it before bringing judgment?
We have already learned from Obadiah and other messages of doom upon the wicked that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. The main reason God does not immediately execute judgment is that He is patient, longsuffering, not willing that any should perish. He gives room for repentance. Peter addresses these very issues in his second letter:
Nahum asserts the same truth when, in introducing God as Sovereign Lord Who executes judgment, he says, "The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished" (1:3).
These two truths go together: He is patient yet still sovereign. A day of justice will, indeed, come to earth ultimately. Sometimes, however, His justice must fall within our earthly experience.
And this is the balance we must remember: ultimate, final justice is for the time when God brings our age to its conclusion. Within the flow of history, the time when we live our lives, Gods highest concern is for repentance and salvation. At times he moves with devastating judgment when wickedness reaches a point of no return (see Genesis 18 regarding Sodom; Peter refers to the Flood as an example of Gods judgment; and see Nahum 3:19). This does not at all mean that Gods justice is sporadic and inconsistent; it means that God is perfectly sovereign over evil and will stop its growth and spread as necessary, but He gives room for repentance.
The endurance needed for standing strong in the Lord comes from remaining faithful through difficulties. Nahum inserts this thought right in the middle of declaring that God is sovereign and He is just, bringing judgment against all who oppose Him. He says, "The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him" (1:7).
The faith we need is in the promises of God, that they will not fail. Once again, Peter addresses this as an essential issue regarding this question:
Peter goes on to say that people who deny the promises of God about final judgment point to history and ask, "Where is the promise of His coming?", although they deny acts of God done publicly in history (2 Peter 3:3-6). Nahums message focuses on these same things. Assyria was notorious for their pride in subjugating not only other nations, but in proving the incapacity of any god to stop them. Nahums message was their third and final warning: first was Jonah; second was the destruction of Sennacheribs army.
Peter gives us the best instruction for how to bring perseverance into our experience:
1Keil and Delitzsch, The Minor Prophets, Vol. 2, pg. 1.
2Ibid., pg. 2
3Hobart Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets, pg. 226.
4F.F. Bruce, Israel and the Nations, pg. 75.
5Ibid., pg. 79.