The Vengeance Of God
"The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth; the Lord avengeth and is full of wrath; the Lord taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserveth wrath for His enemies" (Nahum 1:2, ERV).
Robert William Dale, the great preacher and theologian of a generation ago, said to me one day that he had known one man that he felt had a perfect right to talk about Hell, and that man was D. L. Moody. He stated that the reason that he so felt was that he never heard Moody refer to Hell without tears in his voice.
It is impossible to read this prophecy of Nahum without an almost frightening sense of awe. The very first sentence, which is hardly a sentence, but rather a descriptive phrase, introduces us to the subject of the book. It reads: "The burden of Nineveh," or as the marginal reading gives it with more accuracy, "The oracle concerning Nineveh."
The book of Nahum is the complement of the book of Jonah. One hundred years separate them. Nahum was a Prophet who came to speak to the people of God in an oracle concerning Nineveh. The story of the book when Nahum uttered his message was prediction, that of the utter destruction of a great city and a great people by the will and act of God. As we read the book we are reading what has become history. All the things that he uttered predictively have literally come to pass. The name of the Prophet is suggestive, meaning comfort, and undoubtedly the purpose of his message was to bring comfort to Israel. At the time the nation was threatened by Assyria and by Nineveh, and Nahum revealed what was the Divine attitude towards Nineveh, and predicted the action wherein and whereby it should be blotted out as a city and a people.
So completely has this been fulfilled, that armies have actually marched over the city of Nineveh, ignorant of the existence of its ruins beneath. The message which Nahum delivered is closely compacted, clear in statement, logical in argument, definite in all its declarations.
At the commencement he described it as a vision: "The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite." It is a vision of Jehovah from beginning to end, first a vision of Him in anger, and then of Him acting in vengeance. In this case we may take the chapter divisions as indicating the movement of the message. Chapter one deals with the verdict of vengeance, chapter two with the vision of vengeance, and chapter three with the vindication of vengeance.
The permanent value of the book is that in it we have an explanation of the anger of God, as it reveals the facts of that anger, the reason for it, and describes its activity. It is well to say at the beginning that as we read it we find it is touched all through with the light of tenderness and compassion. Those deep truths concerning the Divine nature are never lost sight of, even though His anger and wrath are being revealed.
This is in harmony with the revelation of God in the Bible, in its entirety. All the Prophets spoke of the wrath of God in some form or another. All saw that God deals with certain aspects of life in vengeance, but in every one of them is found also the note which reveals His love and His tenderness. Any careful examination of these writings, and especially of this book, will show in the last analysis that the reason for the anger of God is found in His love.
Leaving every other reference we come face to face with the Lord Himself. There are many people who think of Him only in the way in which the children's hymn describes Him:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Now, while that is perfectly true concerning Him, it is not all the truth. No Prophet in the Old Testament said things so startlingly severe as Jesus did. He said, for instance, concerning those whom we teach to sing that hymn, that rather than offend a little child it would be profitable that a millstone should be hanged about the neck, and that we should be drowned in the depths of the sea. He was "gentle Jesus, meek and mild," for He loved the child. He loved it so much that He declared - mark His word - that it would be profitable to be drowned in the depths of the sea rather than to cause it to stumble. It was Jesus Who beheld a city, and wept over it, but while those tears were still upon His face, He pronounced its doom: "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate."
If we take the first eight verses of the prophecy we shall find a remarkable gathering together of words that reveal the truth about God as Nahum saw it. Each Prophet had some distinct vision of God, and we can only know anything approaching the full truth concerning Him as we find the merging of these varied visions into that of the majesty of His Being. Isaiah saw Him lifted on His Throne while His train filled the Temple. Ezekiel saw Him in the ancient symbolism of the East in the turning wheels and the living creatures. Jeremiah saw Him in wrath, and yet revealed His heart as he said: Oh that my head were a fountain of waters that I could weep for the sins of my people. Nahum saw Him, and the vision is revealed in these opening verses in which we have a remarkable collection of words. Let us first group them. "Jealous," "avengeth," "wrath," "anger", "indignation," "fierceness," "fury."
Now it is an arresting fact that in those opening sentences we find every word suggesting anger which is found in the Hebrew Bible. Let us further pause to briefly examine these words. The root idea of "jealousy" is that of intense emotional disturbance. It is wholly subjective. Jealousy is always the outcome of wrath, resulting from wrong done to love. It is an emotional revolt against infidelity.
Closely allied is the next word, "avengeth. That is no longer merely emotional, it is volitional, it is active. Vengeance, however, speaks of retribution, never of retaliation. Retribution and retaliation are not the same. Man's anger almost always expressed itself in retaliation, God's never. His anger is retributive.
"Wrath" is the translation of a word which in the Hebrew simply means crossing over from one side to another. The wrath of God speaks of a change created in His attitude and activity. The Prophetic declaration will be remembered that Judgment is God's "strange act," that is to say, it is foreign to His heart, to His desire, to His purpose, to His intention, but there are conditions upon which such wrath is inevitable.
Then we have two words closely united here, "anger" and "indignation," each of them expressing activity, and indicating the expression of wrath.
Two others are closely allied, "fierceness," which means burning, and "fury," which is heat.
Now all this is certainly mechanical and technical, but in it we have a description of God, and that is of Jehovah, which is the word used by the Prophet throughout. This name of God reveals Him as bending to the level of human necessity, and it is this God Who under certain conditions is moved to wrath, and acts in anger.
Now we examine this a little more particularly. In the second verse we have a threefold description, which is followed by a threefold exposition in verses six to eight. The description: "The Lord is a jealous God and avengeth." That describes passion in action. "The Lord avengeth and is full of wrath" - which is the same thing from the other side; that is, refers to an action that comes out of passion. Then the final declaration: "The Lord taketh vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserveth wrath for His enemies." It is clear from this threefold declaration that the wrath of God becomes active as the result of the passion that lies beyond it; and, moreover, that the action is always discriminative.
Then the Prophet gave us an interpretation. He began by the declaration: "The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty." He then employed figurative language of the most intense character. "The Lord hath His way in the whirl wind." The answer of God is seen as irresistible. Then notice carefully the declaration: "The Lord is good, a Stronghold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that put their trust in Him. But with an over running flood He will make a full end of the place thereof," the reference being to Nineveh.
What, then, do we find revealed? First, that the wrath of God is a passion born of love which proceeds to action. As we continue our reading of the prophecy we see what Nineveh was in itself, and what Nineveh had been doing. She had become hated of all the surrounding peoples because of her oppressive tyranny. In overbearing insolence she had resorted to every form of cruelty. God heard the cry of the prisoner, and His anger against Nineveh was born of His love for those whom Nineveh had oppressed. Nevertheless, He is slow to anger, and Nineveh was a proof of it. A hundred years before, when the reluctant Prophet Jonah had gone to it, and had delivered a message of doom, and Nineveh had repented, God had waited. In the meantime Nineveh had committed that heinous sin of repenting of her repentance, and continued in her courses of cruelty. On account of that the wrath of God was active against Nineveh.
The Prophet then gives his vision of that wrath of God in its activity. The reason for His anger is revealed in the words: "There is one gone forth out of thee, that imagineth evil against the Lord, that counselleth wickedness." That was a direct historic reference to Sennacherib. Full particulars regarding his action will be found by reference to the prophecy of Isaiah. That was the sin of Nineveh, as focused in Sennacherib, on the Godward side.
The results were patent in the city itself. In the third chapter we read:
"Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and rapine; the prey departeth not. The noise of the whip and the noise of the rattling of wheels; and prancing horses, and jumping chariots; the horsemen mounting, and the flashing sword, and the glittering spear; and a multitude of slain, and a great heap of carcasses; and there is no end of the corpses, they stumble upon their corpses; because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the well favored harlot, the mistress of witchcrafts, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts."
It was because of this that Jehovah said: "Behold, I am against thee." God is seen, then, as angry because the ruler of a people had lifted himself against the will of God, and this had produced the brutalizing effect upon the people, so that they had become oppressive and cruel, bringing misery and destruction wherever they came. Thus the anger of God was in the interests of others, those who were oppressed, those who were downtrodden, those who were wronged. Let us repeat that the anger of God became active against this city after long patience, and when the case had become hopeless: "There is no assuaging of thy hurt, thy wound is grievous." The cup of iniquity was so full that there were no comforters when Nineveh was over thrown. All nations agreed with the righteousness of the activity of the wrath of God.
When God acted thus in wrath, His action meant complete destruction. This is poetically described by the Prophet, and it is well to repeat and to remember that the poetic description found in Nahum has become actual history in the course of time. We are familiar with the historic account outside this Biblical prediction of what happened. Diodorus Siculus had prophesied that Nineveh would never fall until the river became its enemy. There came a time when during an attack the river broke its banks, and washed away the walls for twenty stadia. Through that breach the attacking forces swept in, and Nineveh was destroyed. Whereas historians on the earth level might speak of the unfortunate coincidence of the river overflowing its banks when it did, we know from this inspired account that it was the act of God. He used the river.
We inquire, then, what this message has to say to us concerning God. The first fact is that to believe in the love of God is to be quite sure of His wrath. Love can be angry under certain conditions, indeed it must be angry. It is impossible today to be complaisant in the presence of the misery, the bloodshed, the brutality, the cruelty manifested, and if we are complaisant, we may be sure that God is angry. Whenever or wherever humanity is wronged and spoiled, the anger of God is not only aroused, it becomes active. We may fittingly remind ourselves in this connection of words of our Master: "Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling! for it must needs be that the occasions come; but woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh!"
The prophecy of Nahum reveals with startling clarity the sins against which the wrath of God proceeds. The first is that of pride, the lifting up of the heart in self satisfaction, due either to the ignorance of God, or the putting Him out of account. With that God is ever angry, because of the results it produces. Moreover, His wrath always becomes active in the presence of cruelty in any form. That anger is increased where, in spite of patience, there is still impenitence:
He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck
Shall suddenly be broken, and that without remedy.
With all this in mind, we return to those clear declarations of the Prophet: "The Lord is slow to anger ... the Lord is good, a Stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knoweth them that put their trust in Him." The wrath of God is ever His "strange act," but it is necessary in the interest of His righteousness and His love. In view of these facts we listen again to the words of the Psalmist: "Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish in the way."