Nahum, an oft-overlooked minor prophet in the Old Testament, details God’s final judgment on the neo-Assyrian Empire and its leading city, Nineveh. The prophet Jonah, famous for his episode with a fish, had preached in Nineveh a century earlier and sparked a great repentance. In the intervening decades, the Assyrians returned to their wicked ways. Nahum, while showing none of the ethnic animus that so vexed Jonah, felt burdened by the sins of the Assyrians and the oppression of Israel. He asks the Lord what He will do about it, and God replies that His patience passed its limits, Nineveh would soon be destroyed.
Nahum chapter 1 overflows with the power of God, His wrath against evil, and His determination to punish the guilty. The Lord of Hosts reminds His prophet in a thousand ways about His strength to crush His foes and save those who trust in Him. The prophet concludes chapter 1 with the joys of bringing good news – being a herald of peace.
Chapter 2 begins with a riveting picture of the battle. The combined armies of Babylonia and Media, adorned in scarlet aboard their flashing chariots, stand outside the walls of the besieged city. In a desperate fight, the attackers drive the defenders back, reaching the gates which control the flow of mighty rivers under the walls and through the city. Babylonian and Median engineers redirect the waters, and the resulting torrent undermines the walls, the palaces, and the major buildings in Nineveh. Infantry, cavalry, and chariots flood the city, and blood flows from street to street and house to house. The Assyrian army collapses, and every man flees for his own life. Medes and Babylonians hunt their human prey, slashing, piercing, and trampling until the last man has breathed his final breath. The King is dead, and the Queen of Nineveh is dragged from her hiding place. She is stripped naked, along with her handmaidens, who beat their breasts in mourning. Other women of Nineveh suffer a similar fate.
Nahum’s prophecy lies ahead. At the time he wrote, Assyria remained the scourge of the near east. Her cavalry tramples Jewish, Median, and Babylonian children while her infantry impales their parents. Mountains of treasure burst the storehouse walls in Nineveh, Ashur, and other mighty cities. As much as they longed for it, many who listened to Nahum could not imagine such an end to their terrifying oppressor. Those who could imagine it certainly would not say it, for Assyrian informants were everywhere and Assyrian assassins never far away. In speaking God’s truth, Nahum’s life could soon be forfeit.
In the second half of chapter 2, Nahum describes the four fears that would terrify Assyria and lead to their downfall. These same fears have afflicted men and women for all time.
The fear of others doing to you what you have done to them
The pool of water in verse 8 has many meanings in this context. Nineveh had been fruitful for centuries, enjoying a vigor which surpassed all their neighbors. Yet the pool was about to drain, and Assyrian strength would spill as a lake is drained by a waterfall.
There is a prophetic element to this image of a pool, and water flowing out of it. Mesopotamia, the region containing Assyria, Babylon, western Media, and many other lands under Assyrian control, is a fertile country crossed by many rivers, canals, and other waterways. The Assyrian army routinely redirected waters to undermine walls and buildings of cities they wished to conquer. To effect Nineveh’s final destruction (612 BC) and the final fall of Babylon (539 BC), to the Medo-Persians, armies used the same technique. Nahum’s image of water flowing away presages both the final end of Assyria and the means that their enemies would use to cause that end. Assyria would be terrified by the thought of their enemies doing to them what they had done to others.
Jesus tells His listeners to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As we consider how we treat others, we must remember that eventually, we will be treated the same way. Our kindness, our loyalty, our industry, our generosity, and our cheerfulness will return to us. However, so will our cruelty, our duplicity, our sloth, our selfishness, and our gloom.
The fear of others taking away our material support
Assyria was great, in part, because of its vast wealth. Centuries of plunder, its location as a center of river trade, and the fertility of its highland fields made Nineveh a sprawling center of affluence. Nahum describes “treasure without limits” and “wealth from every kind of desirable object.” Yet, he also promises that it would all be taken away. The economic basis of Assyria’s power would vanish more quickly than it had come. As Solomon writes in Proverbs 23:5, “wealth takes flight,” and Assyria is no exception.
Man takes his security in wealth. Solomon described how a rich man forgets God (Proverbs 30:7-9) and Jesus spoke of a rich man putting his hope in the fruits of his labor (Luke 12:16-21).
The fear of losing heart
Assyria had been so rich and so powerful for so long that they began to see dominance as their birthright. Facing few real threats, they assumed that they would never face a threat that they could not overcome. Unable to see the future, man expects the future to resemble the past.
Strength, whether that of a man or that of a nation, ultimately derives from the heart. The heart of man, the seat of his will, is the place where he will decide what to do in his life. Every man will be confused, but the strong man will strive to know his duty. Every man will feel fear, but the strong man will do his duty.
The fear of losing who you once were
Assyria used a lion as its royal symbol, and Assyria itself was a lion, tracking, pursuing, killing, and devouring its prey. Large nations which could rival Assyria in power fell before it, as did smaller nations which wanted nothing more than to be left alone. From the Stele of King Sennacherib to the Library of Ashurbanipal, the mighty works of this mighty empire were on display for every nation to see, and tremble. After the death of Ashurbanipal (685-631), the last great Assyrian king, the empire fell into civil war, disease, and assault from its enemies. A few gray hairs remembered the golden days, the days in which Assyria was truly a lion. Older people could see how far Assyria had fallen, and they feared. Younger ones had no such point of personal comparison.
How many hours do the old, and sometimes even the young, spend pining over what they believe they once were? How many of us look back instead of looking ahead, no matter how many years we have behind us and how many we think we have in front. In JRR Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the character Gandalf laments:
“The old wisdom born out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living, and counted the names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls, musing on heraldry, or in high cold towers asking questions of the stars. And so, the people of Gondor fell into ruin.”
This is exactly what Assyria did, and what empires, nations, businesses, communities, and people do in their later years. Christians must never fall into this trap. None can ever retrieve the days gone by, for they belong in the hand of God. He works all things to His purpose, and calls us to consider only the present, and to a small extent, the future, no matter how long we perceive our future to be.
Conclusion – the Four Fears
The prophet Nahum pictured the coming fall of Assyria in riveting detail. He described many of the fears underlying their final fall. Most importantly, Nahum wrote that God was against Assyria, and as a result, its doom was certain. Israel, by contrast, would be restored by Him that loved them.