To help us understand Nahum, we need to understand the historical context and genre. Nahum is one of the 12 Minor Prophets, so called not because these books are unimportant, but because of their length. While they are often ignored and neglected as part of God's Word, they contain tremendous riches for us today.
Each book in the Bible functions in a different way according to their own literary design and structure. For example, in Hosea, God commands the prophet to take for his wife a woman of dubious character, and uses the husband-wife metaphor to describe how He is like a husband and Israel, His wife wife. It is almost allegorical, where the very narrative itself is metaphorical and symbolic. In the lives if Hosea and his wife Gomer, we learn about Israel's spiritual adultery and His covenant faithfulness.
What are the rest of the Minor Prophets about?
- The prophet Joel speaks much about the coming "Day of the Lord", a day of perfect judgment .
- The prophet Amos is a series of addresses about God's judgment for wickedness and social evils.
- The prophet Jonah is a narrative about the reluctant prophet and a merciful God.
- Micah features responses between God and Micah, who responds.
- Nahum is unique in that it is the only Minor Prophet which seems to be written down as a book of oracle.
- Habbakuk is a prophetic dialogue between the prophet and what God has to say.
- Haggai is a prophetic narrative, and so is Zechariah and Malachi
- Zephaniah has the prophet addressing the reader directly with what God has to say.
The Minor Prophets can also be organized based on who it is written to — the northern kingdom of Israel (comprising 10 tribes), Judah in the south (2 tribes), or even to other nations. These prophets also differ in their timing -- some are written before God's jugment befalls these nations, and some are written after judgment has already befallen. In the case of Israel, God's judgment takes the form of allowing them to be conquered, humiliated by Assyria and taken into exile. Subsequently, Judah faces a similar fate in Babylon.
Beyond the Minor Prophets, the books of Daniel and Esther are examples of what God’s people are like when they're in exile. Ezra and Nehemiah also help us see what happens when they are brought back into the Promised Land and experience partial restoration.
It is also helpful for us to understand the historical context of the Minor Prophets so we can place them. Assyria was a great empire first introduced in Gen 10:8-12, where we read of the beginning of this empire. It was founded by Nimrod, son of Cush (Noah’s grandson). It's interesting to note that this is one of the first mention of a human city in the Bible, and that today, in Iraq, near Mosul, there is a city curiously named "Nimrud". This seems to confirm the claims of Scripture.
We also read in Jonah 3:1-4 about how Nineveh was a "great city" of significant size and scale, and God out of His kindness, sent them the prophet Jonah that they may repent and turn from their ways. In 2 Kings we know that this did not last long for they turned back to their ways and continued oppressing God’s people. 2 Kings 18 shows us how Assyria wiped out the northern kingdom of Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah experienced similar humiliation when the Assyria, the regional superpower demanded a tribute of gold, which had to be stripped from the temple of the Lord.
The great Assyrian king Sennacherib was also associated with the great construction projects that built up Nineveh, his capital. His ambitious building program included construction of a splendid palace, and extensive and magnificent walls. The British Museum today has an extensive section about Assyria, which includes the Lachish Reliefs depicting the violence and bloodshed of the Assyrian invasion of the Jewish town of Lachish alluded to in 2 Kings 18:14.
Nahum takes place after the book of Jonah, and reads like its sequel. What will God do and say to a nation that has declared repentance? The fall of Nineveh is foretold in the book of Nahum. As a follow-up to Jonah, it shows what happens when our repentance is incomplete or false. Nahum is filled with 3 chapters of divine judgement and violence. What do we do with this depiction of God our judge? Where is His grace and goodness? It may even seem like this is not the God we know. We need to therefore begin with our theology and what we know of God.
The God of Nahum is quite foreign and doesn’t seem like the God we sing of because He is so full of wrath and judgment. Does this God seem unfamiliar? In Nahum we begin the same way we do in all other Bible reading — with God. We need to ask “what does this book tell me about my Maker?” The Bible is first and foremost about God, therefore we do not start with historical context nor application. The main purpose after all, is not to tell us about Nineveh and a while bunch of cool history, but rather, focuses on who God is -- this God who judges Assyria.
With this as a start, we'll spend the next few posts reading and looking at each chapter in Nahum!