How does one preach Nahum? The background context is distant, specific to the Assyrians, and difficult to contextualize. The what of the passage is not difficult to identify: Nahum prophesies the destruction of Ninevah and the Assyrian empire as God’s retribution for the Assyrian’s extensive wickedness. The why of the passage is more difficult.
The why of a passage is its purpose. This is the observation from which text-warranted application springs. The Book of Nahum is God speaking. Though Nahum’s context is distant, the Holy Spirit speaks again in a new context – that of our modern listeners. This article will seek to identify the overarching message purpose of the book from which the pericopes derive their unit purposes and outline the book by pericope.
First, the prophet’s name, Nahum, means comfort. The prophet speaks comfort to God’s people. Nah 1:2 contains the essential quality of God that will bring this comfort – God’s vengeance on the Assyrians. By Nah 1:2, the prophet has declared God’s vengeance three times. Yahweh will retaliate against whomever stands against him. This quality of God makes the modern reader uncomfortable, yet the purpose of the first explanation is to provide comfort. The comfort we receive from this truth is that God is for us. When we are with Him, he is the one to accomplish just retribution against our enemies. Believers must align themselves with God in order to find Him as their shield. These three mentions of God’s vengeance are stated as part of God’s character. God is impartial so that it is to Him that we align ourselves rather than expecting Him to align to us.
“Yahweh” is named four times by 3a. The highlighted quality of God shifts from his vengeance to God’s covenant keeping – he “is slow to anger and great in power.” Comfort, then, is found in the nature of God. The problems in Israel are the product of God’s vengeance against them, but his impartiality is also their deliverance. God avenges wrongdoing impartially both on his people and on other nations. Yet, he is slow to deliver retribution. His controlled anger is promise of his mercy, rather than a limitation of his power. Perhaps the people thought God was unable to help, or unwilling. Neither of those was true. Nahum assures them God’s interaction is according to his character. This is the double-edged sword of a relationship with God.
The prophet then extols the Creation’s reaction to God. Nothing stands unmoved before the action of God. The claims of 1:2-3 find the power to be accomplished among mere people because they are certainly accomplished in creation. God’s wrath, jealousy, and justice are united with His power against His (and His people’s) enemies. This is the great comfort: God sees and knows and is able to confront the problems regardless of their size.
When preaching Nahum, I believe the most important objective is to discover the pastoral intention of the text. In Nahum, we know that the intention is to provide comfort for the people. Implicit is the warning that God is not playing favorites with his people. Though they deserved judgment for their spiritual infidelity, so too the Assyrians. The occasions of life, then, are not the result of coincidence or God’s oversight or powerlessness. They are the result of God’s acts. There is great comfort in this fact.
I would look for the ways in which God is present in the problems of life as they are expressed in the following pericopes:
Nahum 1:1-11: Message Purpose – God sees, knows, and is able to confront the problems of life regardless of their size or power.
Nahum 1:12-15: Unit Purpose – Worship well during your trials because God is always just.
Nahum 2:1-13: Unit Purpose – Seek restoration with God when you are facing judgement because God always wins.
Nahum 3:1-7: Unit Purpose – Don’t fear the enemies of God or remain one because their wickedness will shame them.
Nahum 3:8-19: Unit Purpose – Rely on the power of God because the power of human efforts always fails.
The listed pericopes and their summarized unit purposes reflect the message purpose. The message purpose serves as the guiding principle that ties the book together. The unit purposes are subordinate ideas to the message purpose.