It seems strange to many modern minds that God should be praised specifically for His wrath. Wrath after all is not politically correct. It’s not easy to speak of God’s wrath. Nahum himself calls the message to Nineveh a “burden” (1:1) But that is the primary message of Nahum; it is a largely negative and condemning book. Yet Nahum frames the entire conversation on judgment within the context of God’s character. We can appreciate God’s justice when it drives us towards His grace.
Nahum is a retelling, by the prophet, of a particular vision which the Lord gave him (1:1), and it is a vision of the destruction of Nineveh. One cannot read this book without comparing it to Jonah. For Jonah too had a message of destruction for the city of Nineveh. The distinct difference in the two books, in tone and response, is intentional. For while the city repentance at Jonah’s warning of destruction there is no repentance now, 100 years later. The contrasting responses offers us a unique look at the manifold nature of God’s jealousy, and that’s how the prophet begins.
“The Lord is a jealous” God, Nahum states (v. 2). But that jealousy manifests in two different ways within this text. It manifests in “wrath” and “vengeance,” on the one hand. He is an “avenging God” who “keeps wrath for His enemies.” But, perhaps surprisingly, the prophet turns immediately tell us that the “Lord is slow to anger” (v. 3). He adds, later in the text, that He is also “good, a stronghold in at the day of trouble” a “refuge” (v. 7). How can these two pictures coexist? The answer lies in a Biblical understanding of the jealousy of God.
God’s jealousy is not like our own. In our own lives jealousy is envy, stemming from pride, and is negative and destructive. But God is perfect and He alone is worthy of praise and worship, therefore when He expresses jealousy it is right and good. In this regard His jealousy will always lead Him to do what brings Him most glory and honor, that includes both redemption and destruction. O. Palmer Robertson asserts:
God’s jealousy consumes, but it also redeems. Because he is jealous, he cares enough to redeem human beings out of their recalcitrant state. Because idolatry, covetousness, and brutality insults his honor, God shall destroy the wicked – and also shall save his rebellious people. (The Books of Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah, 61).
The description of God’s multidimensional response echoes what we read in Exodus too. Moses says the same thing as Nahum, that God is “slow to anger” and “He will by no means clear the guilty” (v. 3; Ex. 34:7). God is both just judge, and yet also redeemer. Nahum starts the vision by pointing the true and yet multifaceted nature of God.
God’s justice and redemption does create some tension for us. It is, of course, not a point of tension for Him at all, but then we are very clearly not like Him. How can God redeem us when He declares clearly that He won’t let the guilty go unpunished? Israel knew this all too well, for it was idolatry that had sent them into slavery under the Assyrians. We are all sinners, we are all condemned before God. So, how can God possibly maintain His justice and redeem us? The answer that question is not divulged in Nahum, though it points to the answer.
Christ is the means of this resolution for us. Verses 6 & 7 present the problem and the solution back to back. For, in verse 6 the rhetorical question goes out:
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.
There is no hope for any of us…until we read verse 7. The solution comes from God Himself. The prophet declares:
The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.
God invites us to take refuge from His wrath by coming under His own protective shelter. This is the very message of the gospel.
Nahum prepares us for the gospel message to be more clearly outlined in the New Testament. For in their interactions with God the nations, and all who dwell among them, will either encounter God’s judgment or His grace. They will either be consumed by Him as they run from Him, or they will be protected in Him as they run towards His open arms.
This is the character of God. His wrath is real, and it is a threat to us. But we should talk about it because that wrath is the incentive we need to run towards God. Nineveh had, at one time, repented and run towards God (Jonah 3:5-9), but they turned back again to idols. The question for each of us is when God’s jealousy burns against us too how will we respond? Will we run from Him, or find our shelter in Him alone? Nahum sets the issue of God’s judgment within the framework of His character. He is the God of both wrath and mercy. In which way will you experience Him?