The Desolation of Nineveh
“And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness” (Zephaniah 2:13).
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Nahum is the seventh of the twelve minor prophets. One way to remember his place in the sequence is to divide the twelve minor prophets into two “stacks” of six (like the two stacks of shewbread in the holy). The last book in each stack, Micah and Malachi, both begin with the letter M (easy to remember since we all know Malachi is the last book, and as the 13th letter, it is halfway through our alphabet). Nahum follows Micah, just as N follows M in the alphabet.
Nahum is called “the Elkoshite,” suggesting he may have been from “Elkosh, or Elkesi, a village of Galilee, pointed out to Jerome as a place of note among the Jews, having traces of ancient buildings” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, page 821). Capernaum, also in Galilee, means literally “village of Nahum,” and is supposed to have derived its name from the prophet (McClintock and Strong, Volume Six, page 827). These are at least consistent conclusions, both cities being in the same region.
This view is generally preferred above the alternate suggestion that Nahum was either born in or taken captive to the village of Alkosh in Assyria, notwithstanding the tradition that “In the city of Asshur [are] the synagogues of Obadiah… Jonah … and Nahum … held in great reverence by Mohammedans and Christians, but especially by Jews, who keep the building … in repair. The tomb is a simple plaster box, covered with green cloth, and standing at the upper end of a large chamber. There are no inscriptions nor fragments of any antiquity about the place; and I am not aware in what the tradition originated, nor how long it has attached to the village of Alkosh” (Layard, Nineveh, i, page 197, cited in McClintock and Strong, Volume 6, page 828).
Probably Nahum was among those of the remnants of the ten-tribe kingdom of Israel who escaped into the territory of Judah. Evidently, he took up residence in Jerusalem and there witnessed the “siege of the city by Sennacherib, and the destruction of the Assyrian host, in the reign of Hezekiah” (McClintock and Strong, Volume 6, page 829). Nahum was probably a younger contemporary of Isaiah and Micah, prophets of Judah who witnessed the same episode.
The Style of the Prophet
Much of the elegance and vibrancy of the language of Nahum is missed through translation. Certainly it is with this author, who is not conversant with Hebrew. The following remark from those schooled in Hebrew helps us better appreciate the style of Nahum. “As a poet, Nahum occupies a high place in the first rank of Hebrew literature … his style is clear and uninvolved, though pregnant and forcible; his diction sonorous and rhythmical, the words re-echoing to the sense (compare 2:4, 3:3). According to Eichhorn, the most striking characteristic of his style is the power of representing several phases of an idea in the briefest sentences, as in his description of God, the conquest of Nineveh, and the destruction of No Ammon. ‘The reader of taste and sensibility will be affected by the entire structure of the poem, by the agreeable manner in which the ideas are brought forward, by the flexibility of the expressions, the roundness of his turns, the exquisite outline of his figures, by the strength and delicacy’ ” (McClintock and Strong, Volume 6, page 830).
The Burden of Nineveh
Whereas Micah rebuked Judah for their sins, exhorted their repentance, and predicted their deliverance, Nahum focused his prophecy squarely on the aggressor, Assyria. “The burden of Nineveh” is the title opening his vision. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. The Assyrian Empire had put an end to the northern Kingdom of Israel, ruled from Samaria, in the year 723 BC, after a siege of three years, during the reign of Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria. The episode is recorded in 2 Kings 17:3-6, 18:9,10. This record is consistent with the Assyrian eponym tablets, which for years 2, 3, and 4 of Shalmaneser’s five year reign record a campaign against a kingdom whose name is now chipped away, but is supposed to be Samaria. The Babylonian Chronicle I affirms of this Shalmaneser, “He ravaged Samabarain,” which evidently refers to Samaria (Text from Cuneiform Sources, Volume 5, Grayson, 1975).
Sargon next ruled Assyria for 17 years. Isaiah chapter 20 mentions his victory over the Philistines and predicts his victory over the Egyptians. Perhaps that was when the Assyrians took “No-Amon, which was situated by the waters of the Nile” (Nahum 3:8, NASB). No-Amon was better known as Thebes on the Nile River (see the NASB margin note on Nahum 3:8).
Next on the throne of Assyria came Sennacherib, who reigned 24 years. He was the dreaded conqueror who laid siege to Jerusalem in his fourth year, 701 bc, during the 14th year of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13). That great crisis is narrated prolifically in the scriptures (2 Kings 18:13-19, 2 Chronicles 32, Isaiah 36,37). That invasion was the foreboding backdrop for the prophecies of Nahum and Micah. Through Nahum, God predicted both that this proud incursion would fail, and that subsequently Assyria itself would be laid waste.
Three Parts of Nahum’s Prophecy
The prophecy of Nahum is customarily divided into three parts, represented by its three chapters: (1) Introduction and theme, (2) Pronouncement of calamities on Assyria, (3) The reasons for this judgment.
(1) Here God assured Judah of His care and jealousy for them. Though Jehovah “is slow to anger,” He is “great in power and will not at all acquit the wicked” (verses 2,3). His magnificence and grand power is summed up in awesome poetic language in verses 3-8. God controls the whirlwind and storm. The clouds are but “the dust of his feet.” He can dry seas, rivers, and earth by drought, and shake the mountains. Nothing can resist His might. Just as surely, nothing can harm those whom God protects. That is the comforting solace to the people of Judah who had turned expectantly to God. “Jehovah is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him” (verse 7).
But of Assyria, God said, “Whatever you devise against Jehovah, he will make a complete end of it. Distress will not rise twice. Like tangled thorns, and like those who are drunken with their drink, they are consumed as stubble completely withered” (NASB, verses 9,10).
The next verses presumably refer to Sennacherib, the vicious monarch whom many nations learned to disdain and abhor, through fear and anguish. “From you has gone forth one who plotted evil against Jehovah, a wicked counsellor … Jehovah has issued a command concerning you: Your name will no longer be perpetuated. I will cut off idol and image from the house of your gods. I will prepare your grave, for you are contemptible” (NASB, verses 11-14).
Many years later Sennacherib came to an end in the house of his god. “And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword” (2 Kings 19:37). To this day, God’s deliverance of Judah from the siege of Sennacherib remains a remarkable testimony to God’s power and direction in the affairs of men. Overnight Sennacherib lost 185,000 men to the death angel. All the might of his empire could not prevail. Though that empire put under foot all the other kingdoms of the Middle East, it never conquered little Judah. Nor would any later kingdom, like Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome, conquer God’s people except by His permission. The first emperor of Babylon also learned this lesson: “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will … and those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Daniel 4:17, 37).
Calamities on Assyria
(2) Next, the prophet took a prophetic stance one hundred years ahead of his day and predicted the overthrow of Nineveh. This is the very city that was once preserved through Jonah’s unwilling service. Then the king of Assyria and his subjects had implored God for mercy, and it had been granted. But that generation passed and the evil later rising sealed the verdict: Assyria would be destroyed.
We learn from history that Nineveh fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612 bc. Xenophon says that the Medes were fond of scarlet, and this color is mentioned in verse three: “The shields of his mighty men are colored red, the warriors are dressed in scarlet, the chariots are enveloped in flashing steel … and the cypress spears are brandished” (Nahum 2:3, NASB, and Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, page 824).
The result was the utter breakup of the city. The chariots ran madly in the streets, dashing to and fro in panic. The nobles stumbled in their march. They hurried to the wall to set up their defenses, but much too late. The Tigris River gates gave way and the palace was invaded. “Huzzab” (“to stand by,” perhaps referring to the queen who stood by her king) was led captive, and her maids wailed, beating their breasts. Though Nineveh had been like a tranquil pool, now they were fleeing in disarray. “Stop, stop,” comes the order, but no one turns back from their flight. The silver, gold, and treasure are plundered. Nineveh is emptied and laid waste. Her heart melted, her knees knocked, and her visage was darkened with distress. Where now was the dwelling of lions (Nahum 2:11), who formerly tore and rapined at will for her needs? Gone and cut off forever.
The Reasons for God’s Judgment
(3) “Woe to the bloody city, completely full of lies and pillage.” Why? “Because of the many harlotries of the harlot, the charming one, the mistress of sorceries, who sells nations by her harlotries and families by her sorceries …I … will show to the nations your nakedness and to the kingdoms your disgrace … Nineveh is devastated! Who will grieve for her? Where will I see comforters for you?” (verses 1,4,5,7, NASB).
In verse 8 Nineveh is compared to No- Amon (Thebes) of Egypt, which Assyria formerly had savaged. As Thebes was conquered while yet a mighty power, so it would be with Nineveh. All her fortifications would fall at the least shaking (verse 12), and as locusts who strip the fields and then fly away in the heat of the day, so Assyria who plundered the nations would be scattered and gone (verses 16-18).
“All who hear about you will clap their hands over you, For on whom has not your evil passed continually?” (verse 19, NASB).
Does it Apply Today?
The principles expressed in Nahum certainly apply today. God will put down all corrupt authority in deference to the incoming Kingdom of Christ. This process has already begun. The Kings of Christendom have already passed away, and Armageddon approaches.
The prophecy of Nahum has a particular application to the great harlot of Revelation, Papacy, who through her consorts ruled Europe with a high hand for a thousand years. That harlot also will be exposed and then burned with fire, thoroughly destroyed (Revelation 17:16), because of her corrupt rule “over the kings of the earth”(Revelation 17:18). Then many will “clap their hands” over her demise. “Alleluia, Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God; For true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand” (Revelation 19:1, 2).1,2
Babylon was a picture of Papacy, in its sins and its judgment. Likewise the preceding empire, Assyria, also was a picture of Papacy. Both world capitals were on the banks of prosperous rivers, Nineveh on the Tigris and Babylon on the Euphrates. The fall of Babylon came by diverting its river, allowing the Medes and Persians to enter under the river gates.3 The fall of Nineveh also had a connection to the river that it was near. There is a “classical tradition that the final breach in the walls resulted from an abnormally high flood, such as might occur on the river Tigris” (Chronicles of the Chaldean Kings, Donald Wiseman, page 17, citing Xenophon, Anabasis, 3:4:7-12).
(1) One of the editors points out that in Psalm 83:8 and Micah 5:5, Assyria is depicted as a final invading aggressor against Israel, which would fit an application to one of the members of the alliance led by Gog from the north — but not Papacy in this case. This seems true in the context of Psalms 83 and Micah 5, where the context of the prophecy applies to natural Israel. This is not necessarily incongruous with applying Assyria to Papacy as an aggressor against spiritual Israel during the Gospel Age. It would mean that the application in Nahum is to be distinguished from the
meaning in Psalms 83 and Micah 5.
(2) One of the editors stresses that though the faithful understand that the overthrow of Papacy is coming, we as Christians of course are to do no violence.
(3) Herodotus, Histories, 1:191, contains this record. Cyrus “turned the Euphrates by a canal into the basin which was then a marsh, on which the river sank to such an extent that the natural bed of the stream became fordable. Hereupon the Persians … entered the stream, which had now sunk so as to reach about midway up man’s thigh, and thus got into town.” Such an episode may be referred to as the background of the symbolism in Revelation 16:12.
The Feet of Him that Brings Good Tidings
Contemporary prophets sometimes used similar expressions. For example, Isaiah 2:2-4 is the same as Micah 4:1-3. A noticeable, through less pronounced case, is Nahum 1:15 compared with Isaiah 52:7.
“Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace! O Judah, keep thy solemn feasts, perform thy vows: for the wicked shall no more pass through thee; he is utterly cut off” (Nahum 1:15).
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” (Isaiah 52:7).
There are three benefits for us in this comparison.
(1) It helps explain the meaning of the texts. In Nahum, the “good tidings” are that God is punishing the oppressor, Assyria. That was good news to the people of Israel. Likewise, in Isaiah 52:7, the context is about the demise of another enemy, Babylon, and Israel’s release from her bondage. The “good tidings” are the same in each case. God has exercised His great power on behalf of His people. That is the point of the phrase, “Thy God reigneth.” In our day we see that power exercised by our returned Lord, an example of the fulfillment of Revelation 11:15-17, “thou hast taken to thyself thy great power, and hast reigned.”
(2) The similarity of these two texts draws into comparison the whole narrative of Nahum with Isaiah 52. This strengthens our surmise that Assyria in Nahum represents what Babylon in Isaiah represents, namely, Papacy.
(3) The similarity supports the likelihood that Nahum was contemporary with the author of Isaiah 52. This is significant because one view of Isaiah (even among conservative commenters) is that the latter part of this book, chapters 40 to the end, were composed by a much later and unknown author. However, if its author was in fact contemporary with Nahum, this seems good reason to recognize the author of these latter chapters in Isaiah as Isaiah himself.