This passage is a remarkably vivid, action-packed account of the fall of Nineveh. Often the language is in the imperative, voicing a command, so that it sounds as if we are listening to cries from the battle. I have found Nahum as a whole to vividly display the two sides of our spiritual warfare, and so to present both the terrors of hell and the joys of the defeat of sin at Christ’s return in a helpfully visible way. We can see here both the joy of the defeat of Satan and the horrors of hell in one and the same narrative, and this should help us to understand why hell is required by the love of God, yet not so that we become comfortable with hell, but so that we strive to rescue as many as possible from that coming destruction.
The passage begins by speaking to Nineveh, “The scatterer has come up against you. Man the ramparts; watch the road; dress for battle; collect all your strength.” Nahum warns Nineveh, saying “get ready!” He then gives the reason: “For the LORD is restoring the majesty of Jacob as the majesty of Israel, for plunderers have plundered them and ruined their branches.” Nineveh is in trouble, needs all the strength she can get, needs to be as ready as she can be, because “the LORD is restoring the majesty of Jacob,” though we know that, even if Nineveh listens to Nahum’s warning, she will still lose, since the LORD cannot be stopped. The sense of this warning is, first, to press the fact that the LORD is coming against Nineveh, and she is in grave danger. Second, the reason refers us back to the introduction of the book, where we are told “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God” (1:2). Why is the LORD coming up against Nineveh? It is in order to restore the majesty of his beloved, for she has been plundered and ruined. The LORD is out to make things right. He is going to avenge Judah because he is jealous for her, and he is jealous for her because they are his very own chosen people.
The passage then turns to a description of the LORD’s army in verses 3-5, and the fall of Nineveh in the rest of the passage. This ordering makes sense because we must first have the army before we have the conquest which the army accomplishes. There is no mission before the Church is established. Yet, at the same time, just as an army would not be introduced if they were not to take part in a war, so the Church is introduced precisely to wage war against all ungodliness.
Why is there an army here? Why are we here? The LORD did not have to use an army; he could have sent fire from heaven. The whole first chapter of Nahum establishes the LORD’s might and irresistible power. In the same way, he could have taken a people for himself directly, rather than through our bringing the good news to the nations. Instead, however, in both cases, the LORD chose to accomplish his purposes and exhibit his irresistible power through human beings. And in both cases this is good for those whom God uses, as we see in verse 9, where the army plunders the gold of Nineveh, thus restoring the majesty of Jacob which was plundered.
What is the LORD’s army like? “The shield of his mighty men is red; his soldiers are clothed in scarlet.” What do “red” and “scarlet” refer to? Red is the color of blood, and so the original readers would likely have taken this verse to refer to the army’s expectation of destroying their enemies—they appear blood soaked. In our own situation, the association with blood should bring to mind the blood of Christ, shed for us. This, too, however, is a proof of our eventual conquest over our enemy, and so likewise shows our expectation of victory in the battle. On the cross, Christ defeated sin and death, so that there is no question as to the final outcome of our war against the evil one. There is also the fact that we read in Matthew 27:28 that Jesus, the greatest warrior of God, who is God, was, indeed, clothed in scarlet prior to his conquest in which we conquer, so that in him we may say that we are clothed in scarlet, just as we have died in him, since his life is attributed to us.
We then have the chariots. “The chariots come with flashing metal on the day he musters them; the cypress spears are brandished. The chariots race madly through the streets; they rush to and fro through the squares; they gleam like torches; they dart like lightning.” The force of arms is emphasized here in the flashing of the metal and brandishing of spears—the weapons are evident, unhidden. We may note that the LORD musters them, not a mere man. It is the LORD’s army, to direct as he will, and to muster when he will. Chariots are, in general, fast, and the speed of these chariots is emphasized. The darting like lightning is also a reference to their speed, and may also refer to their going so fast as to throw up sparks. Whether this explains the gleaming like torches or not, I do not know, but it is relevant that we, as the LORD’s army, are a light to the world. Our arms ought to be evident in our dependency on Scripture, and our power should be visible in our love of God and of one another. These make us frightening to the evil one, just as this description of the army which was to overthrow them would have made Nineveh fear, and made sensible Nahum’s warning to make ready.
We then have a brief reference to the officers, who are likewise in a hurry, “He remembers his officers; they stumble as they go, they hasten to the wall;” They are eager, even hasty, so eager that they stumble, but “He remembers his officers,” even as we rush into ministry, stumbling and making false steps, the LORD remembers us. It is not as if, having sent us into the world, he leaves the salvation of the nations to us, rather, he goes with us. It is, in the beginning and the end, the LORD’s war against evil, and we are but instruments of his will.
Again, we see here that the power of the army is from the LORD, yet he works through human agents. He does not limit himself by so doing, as if giving power to others weakens God, but he is there in our working, he remembers us even as we stumble. Nahum began this book by magnifying the power of the LORD, and gives no hint of there being any limit to his power here, where he introduces the means of his power. Instead, he magnifies the power of the LORD by magnifying the display of might in his army. The LORD himself destroys Nineveh, it is all of God, yet it is not only of God, for the LORD’s army—historically, the Medes and Babylonians, not Judah itself—is his appointed means through which he destroys Nineveh. The Medes and Babylonians were certainly not aiming to do the LORD’s will, or fulfill his word spoken through Nahum, but the LORD has power to work his good purpose even through the desires of those who rebel against him in their hearts. This is akin to the events of Calvary, where Christ was crucified according to the desires of evil men, yet according to the most wise, holy, and just purpose of God, so that God worked our salvation through evil men, yet not in such a way that he is guilty of their evil, but so that he receives due glory for salvation while they receive the just condemnation for killing an innocent man.
Following this description of the army of the LORD is a transition to the remainder of this passage which is an account of the fall of Nineveh. “the siege tower is set up.” The officers, having reached the wall, set up the siege tower. And then, “The river gates are opened; the palace melts away;” Like Mark’s gospel, we have rapid movement here: there is nothing said between the setting up of the siege tower and the gates being opened, and this suggest a swift victory over Nineveh. Those gates could not prevail against the LORD’s army, and this is just as, again, in our own case, we are promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church (Matthew 16:18). Often that verse is taken to mean that we will be able to endure, but a friend of mine once noted that gates do not ordinarily move anywhere, and so are not ordinarily the ones doing the attacking. Rather, we are the new creation, taking over the old, redeeming it. We ought to provoke the enemy to attack us. So long as we sit about doing nothing, we are no threat, but when we assault the gates of hell, then we meet resistance, then we face opposition. There is no place here for a “poor oppressed us” Christianity, where we hide from the big bad culture. Rather, we must show up in force, with the Word of God and with love to wage war against the evils of our day, that we might save some.
“The palace melts away” as indeed the old things will melt away, as 2 Peter 3:10-12 says “all these things are thus to be dissolved” and “the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” There is to be nothing left of unrighteousness, as Nahum has already promised Judah, “never again shall the worthless pass through you” (1:15).
We now have the point where all of Nineveh’s hope is lost, “its mistress is stripped; she is carried off, her slave girls lamenting, moaning like doves and beating their breasts. Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away. ‘Halt! Halt!’ they cry, but none turns back.” The river gates were opened, and now the waters flow out of them. All the people are fleeing before the LORD’s army. Even its mistress, likely the safest person in the city, has been carried off. Nothing can protect against the LORD’s wrath. She likely stands, too, for the city itself, being led into captivity, with those who depended on her lamenting. They have no hope, now that Nineveh is gone, and so they lament, and do not encourage Nineveh. Being of Nineveh, rather than of Judah, there is no hope to be found. The only hope is in the LORD, and on the last day there will be those who mourn “Babylon the great” as she is called in Revelation, and who have no hope. Yet there will also be those who trust in the LORD for salvation, and they shall rejoice at his coming. Our trust can only be in one of these, and must be in one of these. We cannot stand back, neutral, waiting to see how things turn out.
There is in these verses a poetic connection: “The river gates are opened;” “the palace melts away;” “Nineveh is like a pool whose waters run away.” The soldiers having broken into the city, Nineveh behaves like a pool which has been maintained by dams which have been torn down. The palace becomes like water, melting away. This suggests that once the gates have been torn down, all the rest is sure to follow, it happens like clockwork. Having broken down the gates of hell, those bars which hold sinners prisoner, the devil quickly finds those who were his allies running from him, turning to the light and fleeing their prison. His fortresses, wherever and whatever they may be, whether temples of idolatry explicitly or mere distractions from true worship, are no true protection against the onward moving forces of the LORD’s army. Everywhere we go, we are prone to create cracks in the devils armor, bringing light that some might see the greater beauty of the LORD. We who see all things in light of Christ’s work and his coming again are ever prone, and ever growing in propensity, to see and present the whole world as a revelation of the beauty of the LORD. The devil’s distractions are seen as accidental pointers to God or as ugly counterfeits, and exposed as such so that the LORD is shown in his majesty as the one true God. This conquest is our appointed work, yet it is also the LORD’s great conquest of souls, for it is the Holy Spirit who opens eyes to behold the beauty we present, and who impels us to present it, and who opens our eyes so that we see anything to present. It is the LORD who made our mouths with which we present the gospel, and it is by his wisdom and our foolishness by which we present his glories, yet he remembers us while we stumble and is with us in all our work. Hear this great promise: God is with us in our work, we do not work alone, but it is all and wholly and totally God’s work, even as we do it all.
We now come to the victory of the LORD over Nineveh. All the enemy has been removed, and we hear “Plunder the silver, plunder the gold! There is no end of the treasure or of the wealth of all precious things.” Here we have an encouragement for the soldiers. There is much wealth! We also have a restoration: Judah has been plundered, and now plunder. Their wealth was taken, and they now take it back. We, too, have this encouragement, as we look forward to the day when all things will be made right. The righteous shall receive his reward. Though the enemy has perverted justice, yet Christ shall return in the fullness of his kingdom with righteousness and justice. He shall have his people, the Church. Though in Adam we fell, robbing God of glory, yet the LORD will restore to himself his glory by redeeming a people for himself, of which we are a part. As we assault the evils around us, then, in part our hope is to plunder souls for the kingdom of God, that they might share in the treasure of the LORD. Whatever is of worth in this world, whatever is conducive to true joy, is ours by right in Jesus Christ. We may see in this, too, a reflection of Christ’s leading a “host of captives” that is, having assaulted the fortress of the enemy, he led us out of our prison. Thus we may see in this plundering of wealth a similarity to “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37 and Luke 10:2). “There is no end of the treasure” and the harvest is plentiful. The main emphasis of this passage is, however, an encouragement that we shall receive true riches in our conquest. The soldiers are encouraged to hear that there is plenty of wealth to go around, they know that they will be rewarded with it. Christ’s conquest has secured the riches of salvation for us, but there is still encouragement to good works here, as some will escape as through the fire, while others will be richly rewarded for their work to God’s glory, yet we shall all rejoice in the rewards of others, and we shall all return glory to God, as is his due. We shall receive this treasure of joy in the LORD of hosts, we shall, and have, receive the LORD himself as our hope and our joy. In him we are satisfied. This is our fundamental encouragement to holiness: that it equips us to better enjoy the LORD our God, in whom is fullness of joy. If the LORD is not our treasure, we will be ill equipped for the fight. For how can we plunder souls from a country when we are jealous of them? We must, rather, make them jealous of us. We must exhibit how good the LORD is, and how beautiful his commands, or we will make God appear dull, and unworthy of worship. Yet the LORD our God is worthy of all praise, and he is the source of all joy. His commands are good! Psalm 19 is a song of praise to the LORD for his commandments and rules, an exhibition of joy in being faithful to the law of the LORD.
Not only, then, are we obligated to spread the gospel, we will find ourselves impelled to do so by the Spirit of God the more we see and exult in the goodness and beauty of the gospel, and the Spirit himself is the one who opens our eyes to see the gospel rightly, yet not so that we have no responsibility to strain to see the beauty. We must seek to see the goodness of the gospel so that we will be impelled to share it with those around us, and we will only be able to see this beauty if our eyes are opened to it by the Holy Spirit. Just as the soldiers rush to the wall, encouraged by the hope of plunder, we rush to spread the gospel, encouraged by the hope of the glory of God in which we shall rejoice. Just as the Medes and Persians were impelled to destroy Nineveh, so we shall be impelled to wage war against the evil one, so that the victory will be the LORD’s, and yet we will be thoroughly active in the assault and share in the plunder and the riches thereof.