“Are you better than Thebes that sat by the Nile…?” This section is a comparison of Nineveh to Thebes, which was destroyed by the Assyrians already by this point. This question is the lens through which the rest of the passage is to be viewed. Thebes was great too, you know, but she was destroyed, why do you think you will fare any better?
“Are you better than Thebes that sat by the Nile, with waters around her, her rampart a sea and water her wall? Cush was her strength; Egypt too, and that without limit; Put and the Libyans were her helpers.” Nahum says that this is what Thebes was like, and is implicitly saying that Nineveh is quite similar. I do not understand how Thebes had waters around her, her rampart a sea and water her wall, but evidently there is a way of looking at Thebes which rightly makes her appear that way. And Nahum looks at Thebes, and sees her defenses, and her fall, and then he looks at his present situation, and looks at Nineveh, and he sees that, since the first fell, so, too, might the latter, and, as a prophet, the LORD reveals to him that the latter will, in fact, fall.
“Yet she became an exile; she went into captivity;” so we have, then, Thebes was well protected too, and she had strong allies too, but in the end none of that saved her. “her infants were dashed in pieces at the head of every street; for her honored men lots were cast, and all her great men were bound in chains.” Thebes was publicly humiliated. Those who should have been safest, the infants, were dashed in pieces, and not on the highways, but at the head of every street. In the city itself, in the open, the were dashed to pieces. Thebes was shown to be impotent in this way: she could not even protect her infants. Well, one might say, infants can be hard to protect: they cannot defend themselves, after all. And so Nahum turns to the other end of the spectrum: her honored men, her great men, those who should have been able to defend themselves. Thebes was utterly humiliated on both ends: she could not protect those she would have most known to protect, nor those she should have been able to most easily protect. Her defenses did not defend, she was exposed to the invaders, in spite of all her power and allies.
And so, Nahum goes on to tell Nineveh, you cannot expect any of those defenses to save you either. As he says, “You also will be drunken; you will go into hiding; you will seek a refuge from the enemy.” This comparison, to make it more relatable, perhaps, is as if one were to respond to someone who was winning a tournament, who said “No one can beat me!” “Ah, you quote the last champion, who you are now beating! Why should I believe you, when he appears to have been wrong?” Look around, reader, what do you hear from the rich and powerful? Are they happy? Are they satisfied? Does it go well with them, or do they seem to have their lives under control? Do we not hear, again and again, of those who, through mistakes or misfortunes, fall from power? They had wealth, and friends in high places. They had successful careers and promising futures. Yet how many of them have fallen? How many have been publicly ridiculed? Do you trust in those things which you have seen fail others? Why should it be any different with you? Why should it not also go poorly with you? But trust in the LORD, not wealth, not fame, not friends, not your own power, but the LORD, and he will preserve you. I do not guarantee that he will give you wealth or fame or friends or power, but he will be to you wealth and fame—for being watched by the LORD is better than being watched by the whole world—and the greatest of friends, and the most powerful one. By drunk with the Spirit, hide your life in Christ, seek refuge in God.
But if you do not trust in the LORD, then what is said of Nineveh will, whether in this age or the one to come, be true of you, “All your fortresses”—all those things in which you trusted rather than trusting in the LORD—“All your fortresses,” Nahum says, “are like fig trees with first-ripe figs—if shaken they fall into the mouth of the eater.” Those fortresses? They are ready to topple. What kind of fortresses are these, that fall as easily as ripe figs? We are not accustomed to picking figs, but the same may be said of apples: when you shake an apple tree with ripe apples on it—or even, sometimes, when you brush such a branch gently—the apple does not wait to picked, but falls to the ground. These fortresses will be as easily taken as that.
“Behold, your troops are women in your midst. The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has devoured your bars.” Your troops are as good as troops, and your gates are as good as gates, as your fortresses are good as fortresses, which is to say: you may as well not have any of it. Your army is worthless, your gates may as well be wide open, and your fortresses will fall as easily as first-ripe figs.
“Your troops are as women in your midst.” The women, I take it, were not trained as warriors, or were not expected to be very good at fighting anyways. Your troops are untrained, and may well have never thought of fighting—or that is how good they are. Your defenses against this world are weak, you go out to fight with dull blades. Your bullets are confetti, your artillery is jammed. You think you keep the LORD away with these? They are as nothing to him. He will do as he wills, and nothing can stop him.
“The gates of your land are wide open to your enemies; fire has devoured your bars.” You may as well give the burglar the keys to your safe, if the LORD has chosen to have your safe burgled. His will is decisive—not that we ought not properly safeguard what the LORD has entrusted to us, but in the end, it is the LORD who decides what will happen to us and our things. We cannot keep him out of our lives. If we reject him, he will invade to destroy us. If we welcome him, he will enliven us. If he has determined to enliven us, we cannot stop him.
Your wealth is no safer now than it was just prior to the collapse of the housing bubble. Your job is no safer now than it was just prior to the Great Depression. Your home is not so safe that it might not be burgled or burn to the ground. Your health could deteriorate at any moment, you could be hit by a car today, or get cancer. Your friends could desert you. I do not seek to make you afraid, except if that should make you place your trust in the LORD who is sovereign over all these things rather than in created things. Your fortresses are really crummy fortresses, but “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble” (1:7). Your fortresses will not save you, you cannot fight for yourself, you cannot save yourself, and you cannot keep God out of your life. Your only hope must be that the LORD will be your fortress, that Christ Jesus will fight for you, and that the Spirit will enter into your life to restore you to newness of life.
This is good news. Your fundamental insecurity in yourself is good news. We do not usually hear it as good news, we usually hear our insecurity as bad news and try to do something about it. Just the other day I saw an advertisement or infomercial for generators which had several testimonies of how people had lost food in their fridges, or their basements had flooded when the power went out, and how they used to worry when they left their house for fear that the power would go out and that would happen again, but who now feel safe because of this generator. Now, it may well be reasonable to buy a generator, but this advertisement appealed to our fears, our worries, our desire for earthly security. There are ads telling us to stock up on food, to take self-defense classes, to learn first-aid and CPR, so that we or our friends and family won’t die when bad things happen. Thousands of advertisements appeal to our desire for security, telling us that if we buy this product or take that course we will be able to better ensure our own or our family’s safety. Now, protecting our safety and the safety of others is good, but it is not ultimate, and, ultimately, we cannot ensure it. Why is this good news? It is good news in the same way that it is good news to hear that you and I are sinners, that we can do nothing to save ourselves. If we cannot make ourselves secure, if we cannot save ourselves, then we do not need to worry about saving ourselves. If we cannot save ourselves, then our failure thus far to save ourselves makes sense. If we are sinners, if we are fundamentally insecure in ourselves, then we have no reason to be concerned with making ourselves more secure in ourselves. If we recognize that, as far as what the LORD can do to us, our generators have dead batteries, our sump pumps are as hoses turned full blast, our refrigerators are as boxes of moldy bread, in short all our works are rubbish, then we will have no reason to be concerned with our lack of generators, sump pumps, refrigerators, or good works, insofar as none of these can save us from the wrath of God. We are all wretched sinners, separated from God and meriting his just condemnation.
The gospel goes further, of course, it does not leave us all separated from God. It says not only that you cannot save yourself, but also that Jesus Christ, God become flesh, has died so that whoever believes in him will be saved. The sin which separates you from God has been dealt with in Christ Jesus if you have been joined to him in his death. You cannot save yourself—only God can. The gospel is both that you do not need to save yourself because Christ has already done it all, and also that you cannot save yourself, so that you must trust wholly on Jesus death and resurrection, hoping in his righteousness applied to your own account. And this enables us to let go of our own protections: if God saves us, if God is for us, then who can be against us? What can mortal man do to me? If God has numbered my days, then why should I be concerned about the time of my death? If God is God, then I do not need to fill that position, if I trust him. And the gospel is that if we do trust him to save us, then he will save us, and all things will work together for our good. In Christ we are preserved from the wrath of God, and we are no longer judged for our sins, but we are disciplined and pruned, for our heavenly Father is good to chastise us and teach us. So we do not now say, “I do not, really, need a generator, for it cannot save me,” but, since the question of whether it can save me or not is no longer here nor there, “I do not, really, need a generator, for if the LORD my God sees fit to deprive me of electricity, then it will be for my good, and if it would not be good for me to be deprived of electricity, then I will not be deprived of electricity” and we can be confident of this because we know that if God did not spare his own Son for us, but gave him up for us, how shall he not with him give us all good things? But I am not saying to be foolhardy with what the LORD has entrusted to us, generators are not bad. It is the worry that is bad, for it betrays a lack of trust in the LORD. A generator bought for the glory of God is not bad, but good, just as when the exiles returned they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem for God’s glory. If the LORD would preserve your electricity through a generator, so be it, for he has similarly preserved your life through the preaching of men, by which you heard the gospel. Yet it is, in the final analysis, fully and only by grace that you have been saved. The preaching was given you by the will of the LORD, and your generator is only able to work because the LORD sustains it. If you buy a generator in worry, then it may well fail you in order that you might learn to trust the LORD. This would be good: to trust the LORD is better than anything else, it is better than food in the fridge, it is better than whatever is in your basement, it is better than light, and internet, and the reading of books. Read the Word of the LORD, meditate on it day and night, lean not on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge him. Read it now, while it is still light, that when darkness comes you may remember it, and meditate on it, and so grow in the Word of the LORD, and thus grow in true wisdom and knowledge and understanding.
What of Nineveh? She is destroyed. She is flooded by her false protection, she is drunk. Is this good news? Yes. It is good because we must have Christ alone for our salvation. Nineveh rejected the only possible protection: the LORD. We must desire, then, that her fake protections be shown fake. We are glad to see that what we have said is true: that salvation belongs to the LORD, and to the LORD alone. Nineveh falls because she stood on her own defenses, her own works, and they must fail her, just as they will fail anyone who trusts in them. If our works could save us, then we would not need Christ, nor would we have to trust in him alone. If the enemies of God stood, then could we reasonably say that their trust was false? Could we say that one ought not trust in human devices, but only on God? If everything turned out just fine for everyone, then what advantage would there be in Christ Jesus? Nineveh must fall that Jerusalem might stand. And there must be a Nineveh, that we may see, that we may behold, that we might exalt in the wrath and justice of the LORD our God, that we may see that he is good to call us to trust in him alone, that we may see that apart from him we would die. This glorifies the LORD our God, and in that we rejoice.
Here is one more thing to notice: Nahum is concerned about Assyria conquering Judah, and he is able to look around at the nations and see that Egypt fell. He draws from this the conclusion that Assyria, too, may fall. Assyria was a wicked and powerful kingdom, she did not expect to fall. Nahum looks and sees that other nations have been just as strong, yet fell. What is the power of nations before God? He is the one who raises up rulers, and brings them low. Nahum knows that he need not fear Assyria because he can see the similarities between Nineveh and Thebes well enough to recognize that the LORD is powerful enough in Nineveh’s case, just as in Thebes’s, to send her into exile. Here is the point: we do not need to worry about what the kingdoms of this world will do to us. It doesn’t really matter, ultimately, whether we are ostracized or persecuted or anything, God is still in control, and he still has our best interests in mind. The Supreme Court of the USA is just the highest human court in the land, it is not that powerful. The LORD has their hearts like rivers in his hands, he directs how they shall go. And, as utterly unthinkable and unlikely as it is, America could fall tomorrow, just like Assyria fell. Rome fell, Alexander the Great’s empire fell, Hitler’s Germany fell, the English fell as a superpower. Or America could stand for eons, if the LORD wills. In either case, what is that to you? You, follow Christ. Christ who conquered sin and death by his death on the cross. There is the ultimate enemy of Christianity defeated. The devil’s head has been crushed. If God could destroy the devil by the death of his Son, Jesus Christ, then why not bring down the lies and iniquities of today by the troubles of his children, the Church? And would this not be a glorious opportunity? We would be imaging Christ! The servants are not greater than the master; we would rejoice to be counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s sake, however mediocre the suffering.