“When justice is done it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” [Proverbs 21:15]
Life Imitating Life
I didn’t see Saving Private Ryan till a year after it came out. By then, I’d heard several times about the disturbing nature of the opening scene. Though released nearly 20 years ago, the special effects and direction were so good they made the viewer feel like they were witnessing something traumatic in real time. And being historical-fiction, it wasn’t just the gore that made the images so unsettling; People knew they were watching something that really did happen. The storming of the beaches of Normandy was as real, and as tragic, as the world gets. And to see it brought to life with the magic of movie-making, the collision of life and art left audiences overcome with raw emotion.
Something similar happened to me the first time I studied Nahum and got to 2:13-3:5. Without any special effects or Spielberg direction, through a prophet and plain human language, God creates a war scene for us that very much rivals the opening to Saving Private Ryan. And like the movie, it’s very much rated-R. It’s gory. It’s horrific. It is, to be honest, a hard part of the Bible to stomach. But there are reasons why God does this. And that is because God is not arbitrary, especially about justice.
The Exalted Will Be Humbled
Certainly, the foundational reason he does what he does in Nahum is to give us a permanent record of how God can level out justice (which stands in contrast to my last article on grace, found here) to the most prideful and most powerful. In this prophecy he foretells the decimation of Nineveh for being an oppressive bully who used their military strength to commit barbaric acts of injustice against weaker surrounding nations. And God crushed them at their own game: war. As a result, he tells them He is going to end them by using grisly war language and imagery–the way Nineveh would understand best.
Let’s break down the hows and the whys:
1. God showed Nineveh he was the one Warrior-King who could destroy the source of their pride: their military.
It is rare in Nahum for God to speak in the first person but he does here and I find it significant. He’s making it clear who they are now up against. “I will” he says over and over in 2:13 in reference to the annihilation that was about to happen to them. Nineveh surely felt invincible. They had overpowered and taken advantage of several surrounding nations and they were the king.
But here God presents himself as the head of the superior military power, primed to wipe out Nineveh. The title ‘LORD of hosts’ could be translated “LORD of Heaven’s armies” and pictures God as the sovereign King who has at his disposal a multitude of attendants, messengers, and warriors to do his bidding. The title pictures him as one who leads armies into battle against his enemies1. Nineveh could beat human armies but they were no match for the God of Heaven’s armies. God used humans to obliterate them but he was the all-powerful general.
Nineveh as a military power found its pride in the two things that brought it victory and spoils of injustice: the war apparatus and their soldier warriors. God eradicates both of them. He says he will burn their chariots (which stood for the entire war apparatus, those weapons they used to win in battle2) and the sword would devour their ‘young lions,’ which was an arrogant term for their young warriors who killed and pillaged like a mighty animal would. They were good at fighting and had beaten up everyone they’d wanted and abused their skill. But God is undefeated and he can and will humble anyone and everyone if they refuse to humble themselves before him. God always has, and always will, oppose the proud.
2. God spells out to Nineveh the exact sins for which they would be destroyed.
Justice demands a fair hearing and God gives Nineveh just that by listing out in detail its offenses. He calls her a “city of blood,” which likely speaks to their ruthless desire to ravage other nations and kill innocents and leave human carnage and blood in their wake. Additionally, He indicts them on counts of being full of lies and plunder. Nineveh’s government had perfected duplicity in its treatment of other countries, making peace and then attacking3. And once they’d conquered, they would take whatever they wanted, as have stereotypical war victors throughout history. And by “her prey never departs” in 3:1 I think he is saying that they never knew when to get enough of their spoils.
Just as Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16 was insatiable in her spiritual prostitution to surrounding nations, Nineveh was never satisfied by what they gained through violent, oppressive thievery. They always wanted more. God hates lying, shedding innocent blood and all means of abusing people for personal gain. Nineveh had been guilty of this over and over. And this judgment was God’s justice. But God did not act without telling them why.
3. God executes his judgment of utter destruction in the same manner that Nineveh had bullied others.
This is probably the most impressive part of the passage to me. Nineveh used war to rise to the top and God used war to eviscerate them. I think it is innate in humans to appreciate and desire exact and reflective measures of justice against crimes. If someone dings my car and flees, I think the perfect punishment would be for their car to get dinged. This is God’s image imprinted on us.
You can see this all over the Bible, and in both testaments. Proverbs 26:27 says, “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it; if someone rolls a stone, it will roll back on them4.” The Israelite law stated an “eye for an eye”5.Obadiah’s message to all nations is, “As you have done, so it will be done to you.” And Jesus in Matthew 7 says, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” What happens here is similar.
Destroying, Not Saving
But beyond the retributive justice our God carries out in Nahum 3:2-5, I also stand in awe of how He describes it. Using carefully-chosen, empirically-driven war terms, God puts the reader on the front row of the Normandy invasion type scene:
“The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear…hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies!”
This battleground language would be extremely familiar to its original audience–Nineveh. The image is grotesque, but authentic. God attacked in judgment and left Assyria in his wake. The hyperbole of dead bodies “without end” is revolting for the ears and mind. Like Ezekiel 16, the mental picture is not for General Audiences. It’s unapologetically R-rated.
And yet, God continues. In verse 5 he tells them, “‘I am against you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.'” God is not playing around here. This isn’t a rated-G God. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, executing justice in an equal and appropriate measure to a people who’d shown no concern for human life over a long period of time.
Sovereign Justice, Not Bloodthirsty Cruelty
And that is how I feel I need to finish. Despite what I’ve read in atheistic best-sellers and been told face-to-face by people who have a hard time with the ‘Old Testament God,’ the consistent God of the Bible is not obsessively vindictive, hot tempered, or bloodthirsty for war. He is not a moral monster. When you get into the contextual world behind the hard-to-accept stories of mass genocide, you will see that God is bent on justice–be it in Noah’s day or with Canaan or Nineveh. When you understand this, you have a better chance of understanding God’s reasons, which are just.
Space does not permit a fuller treatment of all that occurs in Genesis 6 or Joshua 9, but I can speak here for Nahum 3 in that Assyria acted wickedly for a long time. Through Jonah’s preaching, God had already shown them grace and had accepted their short-term repentance. He was patient. He is always patient and slow to anger. To go back to my previous illustration, it’s like sometimes he allows the guy to ding 20 cars with no repercussion. But when he does act, the justice is equal to the crime. And if the sin is offensive to the eyes and ears, expect the judgment to be.
In Ezekiel 16, we see God’s grace, but we also see his justice in that he punished but after a lengthy rebuke, He forgave. Here, we see the inverse. We see God’s final, incontrovertible justice carried out, but only after an incredible amount of grace prior. God is the God of grace and justice and always seems to find a way to show both6. It is just a shame that because of our evil, the scenes are often rated-R.
- NET Bible On-line Textual notes on Nahum 2:13 ↩
- Keil and Delitzsch, Nahum, 28 ↩
- NIV Application Commentary: Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah, 183 ↩
- In the book of Esther, Haman is an excellent practical example of this. ↩
- I have no doubt that Jesus in Matthew 5 was not teaching that this was a bad law, but that people should not take matters into their own hands. Old Testament law justice was carried about by a juducial system, not by vigilantes. In Nahum 3, the judge is center stage. ↩
- Jesus’ death being the example par excellence of this. ↩