The book of Nahum is set about 100 years after Jonah, and covers Nahum’s prophecy against Ninevah, here standing for the whole Assyrian Empire. And it’s pretty brutal stuff, the sort of thing Jonah would have loved to have bellowed after getting spat out of the whale. In chapter 1, God is portrayed as an almost primal force of justice, the forces of nature at his command, all of them pointing straight at Ninevah. To those beaten down by the Assyrians, of course, this would be the news they’d been waiting for – God storming in less as a judge and more of a deliverer:
The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble.
He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Ninevah;
He will pursue his foes into darkness.
And that’s good news for anyone suffering under an oppressive regime, forming one of the key themes of the Bible – God is the hero who rescues his people, in so many different ways. God is watching our backs.
And yet, to comfortable Western ears, books like Nahum are uncomfortable. The martial nature of some sections of the Bible, talking of the destruction of whole communities don’t sit easy with peace movements and the Geneva Convention.
The flipside of that, of course, is that many of those who are with this idea think that God’s justice happens to other people, and that we’re safe because we sit in the right church, or under the right flag.
And so this is where the limitations of this blog are revealed, because I struggle with books like Nahum and the idea of vengeance. I prefer the message of grace delivered by Jonah, but I’m also aware that’s not always the whole story. There aren’t always happy endings.
So let’s narrow things down a little. One thing we can learn from Nahum is that our actions have consequences. We know this on a personal level – we’ve all messed up, hurt people, made mistakes we either have to fix or live with.
But let’s get closer to Nahum – many of us live in western democracies, in which corporations have greater wealth than some countries. Our actions – our votes, our purchases – have geopolitical consequences as well, for the civilian populations of countries we invade, for those working in sweatshops. Back in the days of Jonah and Nahum, military might was the power that God had to take vengeance upon; now the power-brokers are as much politics and business as they are guns and bombs. What does God think about that?
I don’t want to get into partisan politics or economic theories. Faith has something to say to both of those, but it starts from a different perspective – God is a God of grace and justice. Those have to underpin all that we do, and seriously; the fate of Ninevah, and its squandered second chance, shows us that.
And when we vote, when we shop, when we speak, we need to remember that while God may go to war, he does it in the cause of justice, liberation and the salvation of the oppressed. Any other reason is just empire-building.
And empires will ultimately fall.