How many of you have ever heard a sermon from the book of Nahum? Chances are you haven’t. It’s not a very popular book, nor does it appear in any of the lectionaries. It’s probably because, at base, Nahum is really a prophecy of God’s vengeance against the Assyrians and their capital city of Nineveh. Most people don’t know a lot about the Assyrian empire, or about Nineveh, so it seems like an outdated and irrelevant book to modern ears.
But, on the other hand, it’s curious that it isn’t more popular, given the fact that humans tend to love stories of revenge. Think about it—how many movies are based on the idea of getting back at an enemy who has done something terrible? One of the most popular movie franchises is “The Avengers,” for goodness sake! We love to see the villain get his just desserts in the end—it appeals to our sense of justice.
An article in Psychology Today a couple of years ago suggests that this is desire for revenge is actually good for us. It’s a product of an often overlooking emotion called “embitterment,” which is the sense of having been victimized, coupled with the desire to fight back. But because the person feels helpless, it leads to fantasies of revenge or aggression. Psychologists think that these accompanying revenge fantasies actually serve as a buffer against the negative feelings associated with victimization, which is why people love revenge movies. We don’t have to actually do anything vengeful, it’s the feeling of justice that counts.
If anyone had a sense of being victimized it was Israel and their primary tormentors were the Assyrians. Remember that it was Assyria that wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. They were the blitzkrieg army of the day; merciless and good at destroying or subjugating conquered peoples. Nineveh represented evil to many smaller countries and empires in the ancient world, which is why a book like Jonah (which we skipped over in this series) is so interesting. Remember in that story that God told the prophet to go to Nineveh and warn them of God’s wrath. Jonah didn’t want to go because, as an Israelite, he was afraid they might actually repent and be spared. When his preaching there is effective, Jonah pouts, Why? He wants Israel’s bitter enemy to get what’s coming to them. He is fully engaged in the revenge fantasy.
Nahum acts as kind of a sequel to Jonah. Here we learn that Nineveh doesn’t actually repent, at least not for very long. They continued to wreak havoc and the prophet announces God’s judgment on the empire and the city. The book thus reads like a total revenge fantasy, so much so that when Nineveh falls, Nahum says, “All who hear the news…clap their hands” (3:19).
What’s interesting about Nahum’s prophecy, however, is that it doesn’t follow the typical revenge fantasy. In that scenario, we imagine ourselves doing the dirty work. We fantasize about beating up that guy who cut us off or that boss who fired us. We imagine our army sweeping to victory over the evil terrorist empire. We love to think of ourselves as the avenger, swift and decisive, gaining victory over our enemies and claiming our righteous justice over them.
Nahum, on the other hand, is written to a people who have no capacity for revenge—people who are still under the thumb of the oppressor. They are helpless victims. Their only hope is that a righteous God will do the avenging work for them. Nahum assures them that God’s wrath is coming. God is, after all, “jealous” and zealous for his people. He will let nothing deter his purpose for his chosen people. His judgment will set things right despite the apparent circumstances.
We don’t hear a lot about God’s wrath these days. We prefer to think of God as squishy and loving, forgetting that his judgment is part of his love. It is God who ultimately sets the bounds of justice, as we learned from Micah last week. God will not put up with evil forever. Eventually, it will need to be dealt with and God is the one to do it!
But here’s where the revenge fantasy goes sideways. We want the instant gratification of revenge, but Nahum tells us that God is not into quick vengeance. Chapter 1:2 tells us of God’s vengeance and wrath, but verse 3 says that he is also “patient” or “slow to anger.” In other words, Nahum tells us, God is willing to put up with a lot before he acts. His vengeance and wrath aren’t like lightning bolts—more like a slow burn.
Remember the story in the Garden in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve heard God’s warning about eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “On the day you eat it, you will surely die.” But notice what happens—they eat and don’t die, at least not for a long time. God withholds his wrath, choosing instead to banish them from the Garden and give them a lesson in what it’s like to try and be the little gods they wanted to be. God was slow to carry out the rightful vengeance of death, choosing instead to give them a chance to be redeemed.
God gives us that chance of redemption, and it follows then that God gives our enemies the chance as well. God’s slowness is a gift of time—time to repent and change. As Paul puts it in Romans 2:4, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” He goes on to say that God will repay everyone according to their deeds (v. 6)—but not yet. There is still time, even for those who live in Nineveh!
In a world where revenge is the standard operating paradigm of people and nations, we might think of God’s slowness to avenge as weakness. Nahum, on the other hand, sees it as a sign of God’s power. Look at verses 3-5 – he controls the seas and the rivers, the storm and the earthquake. God is “great in power” and yet he withholds that power to give us every chance to repent. Jesus demonstrated this power in calming the storm—the great chaos was held back when the disciples feared they were lost (in more ways than one).
But remember that the very one who had the power to calm the storm was also the one who refused to pour out his righteous wrath and vengeance on those who nailed him to the cross. Even in the midst of his own innocent victimhood, he didn’t have a revenge fantasy. Instead he said, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” Oh, he will deal with evil—but he will do it with slow, patient, suffering love.
Nahum understood this and encouraged his people to remember (v. 7) – “The Lord is good, a haven in a day of distress. He acknowledges those who take refuge in him,” while at the same time, he will “pursue his enemies into darkness.” Jesus pursued the enemy all the way to the cross, defeating them utterly in his own death and resurrection.
But notice again—this vengeance, this defeat of evil, is all God’s doing. We can never do it on our own. No amount of revenge, fist-shaking, or military ordinance will get it done. Indeed, when we take vengeance into our own hands, it merely begets another cycle. It escalates and ends up eventually hurting us. Here’s Paul again in Romans 12:17-21 –
Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, ‘Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.’ Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.
In other words, vengeance belongs to God. Forgiveness and love belong to those who trust him. Forgiveness, however, isn’t just a way of glossing over the wrong that was done to us. It’s not “forgive and forget.” That ignores the depth of the injustice. What it does mean, however, is that we can forgive knowing that God is ultimately in charge of setting things right. He may not do so quickly…God is a slow avenger. But God’s slowness gives us the opportunity to do what Jesus said—“To pray for those who persecute” us; praying that God will give them time to repent. After all, God has given us the same time for our own repentance!
Does that mean that we simply tolerate evil in the present? No. Even our membership vows remind us that we are to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” But we resist them in the way of Jesus, not in the way of violence and counter striking. We resist evil with suffering love, not with our own version of revenge.
Does this mean we also refrain from celebrating when evil gets its just reward, even in the present? I remember when Osama Bin Laden was killed by those Navy Seals five years ago last month? Remember the cheering crowds outside the White House? All who heard the news clapped their hands.
The nations of the Mediterranean world celebrated when Nineveh fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612BC. Indeed, the destruction was so complete that just 200 years later the Greek historian Xenophon visited the ruins of Nineveh’s massive walls and asked the local people what they were. They could not tell him. Assyria’s history was buried until archaeologists began to piece it together in the 19th century. No one shed a tear for them. God’s wrath, with the help of the Babylonians and Medes, did the job that Israel could not do.
It’s a great revenge story. But there would be other empires, other oppressors, and more of the cycle of revenge to come. In the five years since Bin Laden’s death, we continue to see more and more destruction, revenge, and death. It’s an endless cycle.
It’s a cycle we can be caught in as well. We might have wounds from the hurts inflicted on us by others. We might lie awake at night and wonder how we will get back at them. Like the prophet, we may cry out for their destruction and look forward to applauding when it happens.
But, even then, it doesn’t end. It reminds me of the line by the vengeful Spaniard Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride, who finally kills the man who killed his father. After it’s over, he reflects. “Is very strange,” he says, “I have been in the revenge for so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.” Revenge is all-consuming and it always leaves us cold.
God’s ultimate answer to evil, however, is the slow, patient, work of redemption—of suffering love. The cross stands before us as God’s ultimate answer to evil. It is forgiveness, justice, and hope. It does not repay violence with violence. It reminds us that God is still at work; the slow avenger is setting the world right.
Will we follow him in that work?
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. Preaching from the Minor Prophets. Eerdman’s: 1998