First, this is an oracle, a prophecy, telling what is to come. Second, it is an oracle concerning Nineveh, which, as we see later, refers to Assyria, or Assyria’s capital (3:18). Assyria was the enemy of Israel, conquering them in 2 Kings 17:6. They were also against Judah, fighting against them in 2 Kings 18:13ff, and, later capturing the king of Judah, Manasseh, because God chose to chastise Manasseh thereby (2 Chronicles 33:10-12). So we can see that it is an oracle concerning the enemies of the people of God.
The book begins by proclaiming the LORD as an angry God. We read in verse 2, “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” What I first notice is the repetition, “an avenging God, the LORD is avenging, the LORD takes vengeance.” And this is not redundancy, but emphasis. The book promises that God is taking vengeance against Nineveh, but at this point the text is providing a preliminary understanding of just who the LORD is. In verses 2-8 the text does not directly address either Nineveh or Israel, nor does he draw any links between God’s attitudes and either nation, but rather proclaims the LORD in his jealous and avenging and wrathful being. The point is not so much that we should recognize God’s jealousy for us, or how God avenges us, but rather that we should behold the LORD God as a jealous and avenging and wrathful God.
The text does not at this point articulate who the LORD is jealous for. Is he jealous for his glory? Is he jealous for his people? Is he jealous for his creation? Certainly, all of these are true. One theologian has articulated the jealousy of God by saying “there is not one square inch in all of creation over which God does not proclaim ‘mine!’” Later we see that God is acting for Judah and for Jacob, but here the point is not so much his concern for his people as his wrath against Nineveh, and even not so much that as God’s nature, which does, certainly express itself particularly in this way against Nineveh in this oracle.
Let us dwell, then, on the LORD’s nature articulated in this passage. “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;” growing up, I was jealous for my LEGOs. I was very careful with them, to the point that it was a rule that you couldn’t come into my room with shoes on, let you break a LEGO piece. I was reluctant to bring my LEGOs out of my house, lest they be forgotten somewhere and lost. If I built something, I was protective of it, not letting anyone else take it apart without first getting my permission. And this is what the text says God is like with his people: he is protective of his people, he does not want any harm to come to them, he does not want to lose them. God’s jealousy is far more righteous than mine, of course—LEGOs aren’t as important as I treated them—but it is interesting to consider that my LEGO creations were my creation in a similar way to how we are God’s creation. Similar, not the same, but I think it is no accident that I was jealous for things I had put that creative energy into. We see also the kind of identification of Israel’s enemies as God’s enemies: verse 2 says “the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” This is also the kind of thing that jealousy produces. If you had gone after my LEGOs, I would have gone after you. To attack what I am jealous for is to attack me, because that is how mine those things are. Israel is so identified with God that for Nineveh to attack them was for Nineveh to attack God.
So the LORD is avenging because he is jealous. When someone violates God, whether by attacking his people, or mocking him, that person can count on God avenging what God is jealous for. But this is not simply a dutiful vengeance, God does not avenge his glory passionlessly or reluctantly. We sometimes read the psalmists crying out for God to avenge them and think that, perhaps, God has to be roused to avenge his people. Or we look at the evil in the world and think that God should be quicker to avenge, and maybe he is reluctant or something. But in this next line we read “the LORD is avenging and wrathful;” he has this burning hot rage against those who violate his name, who would take away his glory, who do not respect him and his own as he desires. And so, in the next line, we read “the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries” there is no “might” here, he does take vengeance, he never fails to take vengeance on his adversaries. Because God is jealous he avenges, and he avenges with wrath.
It is one thing to be jealous for something, but if I had not been allowed to enforce the rule that you could not come into my room with shoes on, it would not have done my LEGOs any good. And so Nahum goes on in verse 3, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.…” We often read that “the LORD is slow to anger” and think of his patience, his love. It is often made out to be one of the nice attributes of God, and it is, but if we look a little further, we read “…and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty.…” So God is patient, but he will not clear the guilty. We look at evil, and bad people getting away with things, and we think that the world is unjust, but this text promises that no one gets away with anything. God does not simply overlook sins, but, as Romans 2:5 says, they are “storing up wrath for” themselves on the day of judgment. That is, God is slow to anger, yes, but that does not mean that anyone gets out of anything. It merely means that they get it all at once, later, rather than spread out, some now, some later. So long as that guilt remains on them, they will receive that wrath. That guilt cannot simply be cleared away, it must be dealt with, God must pour out his wrath on it.
Sandwiched between these two, we have “and great in power”: “the LORD is slow to anger and great in power”. He is slow to anger, not because he lacks the ability to execute judgment quickly, rather, it is because of his grace that he waits. So God waits, and then unleashes his wrath on his enemies with power. He is able to avenge early, but he is also able to avenge later, because he has so much power. It is not as if God needs to hurry up and take Nineveh out early, before they get too powerful, or before they cause too much damage, rather, the more evil Nineveh does, the more of God’s power they will endure. So the greatness of the LORD’s power enables him to be patient, but he will, eventually, bring justice. He keeps wrath for his enemies, he is not procrastinating, but waiting for the right time.
Verse 3 ends by going into a collection of images, going on through verse 5, which helps us to get a sense for this power of the LORD we read “…His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it.” These are great images of God’s power, but not simply his power generally, but particularly images which show his destructive power. The sky, the waters, the land, everything is affected when he comes in power. The coming of the LORD is so awesome that Nahum continues “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.”
I don’t think we usually act like we believe in a God this big. Speaking for myself, I know that I am almost constantly forgetful of how immensely powerful God is. This God, who comes in the whirlwind and storm, for whom the clouds are nothing more than the dust of his feet, is oftentimes very foreign to how we think about what is going on in the world and our lives. Think about this: our God controls hurricanes. He creates hurricanes and guides them to exactly where he wants them to go. His very presence occasions earthquakes at several points in the Old Testament. Think about that: if his very presence can occasion earthquakes, that is like the low setting on the stove melting steel—if the low setting can melt steel, what can the high setting do? So if the low setting results in the mountains quaking, then I imagine that God could easily tear the earth in two. Our God has more power than all the armies of the world over all time combined. When God decides to end this present age, no one will be able to stop him. Nothing stops the LORD from the executing justice. This is the God we worship. We worship the creator and destroyer of galaxies.
And then Nahum’s reaction, “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger?” Nahum is seeing how immense and powerful Go d is, and recognizing that God is powerful and that he is not. Nahum is looking at this and his mind is blown by the power of God, and he looks at himself and recognizes that he, and all of creation, is pitifully weak in comparison. And he reiterates, again, why he is so stunned, why no one can stand before the LORD’s indignation and no one can endure the heat of his anger, it is because “His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.”
A lot of the time we don’t like to think of God as wrathful. We like to think of God as love, but not hate. But here we see that our God is a God of wrath, and what we will see in this book is that the news that our God is wrathful is good news for us. It is bad news for the enemies of God, but it is good news for God’s people. What verses 2-8 are meant to do, I think, is to give Israel a vision for how stupendously big God is. God is not simply love, but also full of wrath. And Nahum wants Israel to see how big God is, so then he says “the LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.” He exceeds our idea of what good is, and expands our vision for good. He is good and the standard of all good. So we turn from “His wrath is poured out like fire” to “the LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble;”
In verses 7 and 8 we see this divide made between those who take refuge in the LORD, and the LORD’s adversaries. Having articulated the nature of God, his wrath and jealousy and power, Nahum is taken aback and realizes that if he is out in that storm of God’s wrath, then he will be swept away. If we are God’s adversary, if we are against God, then his wrath will burn hot against us. So what, then? Having seen that he cannot stand against God, Nahum reminds us that God is good. We cannot stand against God. In our sins we are against God, and his indignation is against us. But now we have this comparison of the LORD to a stronghold, and Nahum says that the LORD “knows those who take refuge in him.” We can be saved from God’s wrath! This is the gospel! The only safety is if we rely on the LORD as our protector. The only safety from God’s wrath is to run to God. We have all offended God’s glory, we have all sinned against God, and mocked him by our actions, and so we deserve his wrath. And his wrath must be poured out on that sin. And this text tells us that God knows those who take refuge in him. So what we know by this is that God’s wrath is not going to poured out on us if we take refuge in God, and we know from the New Testament how these two things come together: In Christ we died to sin, God’s wrath was poured out on our sins, so that God is just and does not clear the guilty, and we are made in Christ, that is, the stronghold in this text refers to Christ in whom we take refuge and in whom God’s wrath was poured out on our sins. After Nahum has realized how small he is, and how he cannot stand before God’ indignation, there is relief in this verse. The gospel breaks in and gives relief.
Notice where the gospel comes in this text, though. It comes right after Nahum has faced the fact that he cannot stand before God’s indignation. The gospel is not merely that God loves us, but that he loves us who are sinners. He loves us for Christ’s sake, not because we have any good in ourselves, and we have to see, really see, that we deserve God’s judgment before we will be able to see just how good this good news is.
But the good news doesn’t stop with the fact that we can escape God’s wrath by taking refuge in Christ. Nahum goes on, “But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.” So we have “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. But with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries,” We are saved, but the enemy is destroyed. And this is still gospel. The destruction of the enemy of God is good news. God answers the problem of evil on the last day. We, Christians, are God’s people, and Satan is our enemy, and the enemy of God. Every evil that Satan perpetrates stores up more wrath against him. God will have his justice. Just as the Israelites may have been wondering “when will God avenge us?” we, too, wonder this same thing. We often phrase it differently, as, say “why is God letting this happen?” or “when will Christ return?” but we, too, are frustrated by the fact that our enemy appears to be strong against us. Our hope is that God is jealous for us and will make everything right. Every evil we encounter is a promise of a great exhibition of God’s power and justice later. It is not therefore good, or it would not require justice to be meted out against it, but it promises good, because it is evil and God cannot stand evil. And we might even say “if Christ is waiting so long to return, how great a return it will be!” Because Satan is storing up for himself more and more wrath. Every evil requires that God vindicate himself on the last day, and prove himself as he is: righteous and just.
And in our own lives, sin is defeated. It is powerless. It is not wholly done away with, we still struggle against sin every day, but it is no longer our oppressor. The gospel does not end with the fact that we are not judged, but goes on into our whole lives. In Christ we have died to sin, our sin has already been judged in Christ, but the gospel is not merely the death of Jesus Christ, but also his resurrection: we have been raised with him to newness of life. Jesus made a complete end of the adversaries on the cross so that we not only no longer carry the guilt, but are also freed from the rule of sin. We not only have nothing to fear in death, but in life we are enabled to live as Christ lived more and more. And on the last day sin will be wholly done away with, we will no longer struggle against sin because sin will no longer be there to be struggled against. This is why God’s wrath is good news, now that we are in Christ, now that we have taken refuge in the LORD our stronghold, we no longer fight against sin in our own power, but rather the LORD’s wrath burns hot against it, just as on the cross, but now the destruction of our sins does not involve our destruction because the destruction of sin takes place in the death of Christ.