The Lord is a paradox with a nasty edge in Nahum. After everyone read through the first chapter of Nahum, I asked what struck everyone about this chapter. One person noticed that the Lord seemed malevolent with the narrative’s emphasis on “vengeance”; another noticed that the Lord’s promise here in the text to keep the people safe hereafter would soon be broken, as we know from history. Someone else remarked that this chapter spends the first part focusing on nature before moving on to discussing the people. The Lord spans the spectrum from destruction to shelter, from chaos to deliberation, from bearer of bad news to bearer of good news, and this description positions him as a unique, paradoxical force in the world for humans to try to grasp.
As we worked through the book, we saw that the observation of a focus on vengeance is correct; in the second verse the Hebrew repeats the words, “the Lord takes vengeance (noqem),” three times in three phrases, even though the JPS and RSV translations employ different words (v. 2). The Hebrew emphasizes the vengeance even more than the English. We should recognize that vengeance is not necessarily an act of destruction, but a settling of scores. Once the Lord has let a situation go long enough, he comes in to settle the matter. Yet the Lord is patient (lit. “long of nose”–taking a deep breath?) in his decision. He does not strike on a whim or in the heat of the moment; he deliberates, which emphasizes that the decision arises from wisdom, not impulsivity. This trait may make the Lord appear more wise, or more cold-blooded, but the Lord certainly acts decisively.
When the Lord acts deliberately, his actions paradoxically resemble a whirlwind and a storm (v. 2b). This image represents chaotic, irresistible forces of nature, in tension with a god who is careful and purposeful. The reader sees a deity who looks chaotic, yet thoughtful. He is the greatest force of nature, making the sea dry; the stable hills unstable; the lush mountains languish (vv. 3-4). The mountains fall down, and the earth and its creatures are lifted up (v. 5). Once the Lord comes, the earth practically turns upside-down. In the end, every force of nature–the greatest forces known to humans–is under the Lord’s control and none can stand against him (v. 6).
In front of an intelligent force of nature above all forces of nature, humans can only remain safe if this force chooses to avoid them. Thus the only force that can keep them safe is the force itself–the Lord is the hurricane, as well as its eye. The evil is the storm, and the good is the protection from the storm (v. 7); he is the flood, and he is protection from the flood–and the one who leads into darkness (v. 8). The Lord is the entire mechanism, as he takes vengeance and he protects from his vengeance. No plan can work around this force. The one planning is as wise as a drunkard and as powerful as dry thorns (vv. 9-11). Note that this is the first mention of humans–and they are foolish and impotent.
The Lord needs to impress further on the people that he is the only refuge from his power. He will just as easily wipe away the Israelites’ immediate problem, their Assyrian overlords. He afflicted Israel through the Assyrians; he will stop afflicting them by crushing the Assyrians (vv. 12-13). The end of Assyria is coming: their name will not be “sown” any more, that is, they will no longer bear fruit or offspring, and their gods will be cut off (v. 14). Judah will ultimately be able to live in peace by being set free from Assyria (v. 15).
Good news and bad news: both come from the Lord. Because he is the “irresistible force” of nature, overturning all of creation, he is also the “immovable object,” offering protection. Humans often fall into the trap of thinking that good news is the status quo, the way things “ought” to be, not recognizing that good news comes from the Lord. In the wilderness, the Israelites worried about water or getting sick of manna, complaining to the Lord, forgetting that the very ability to worry about this “bad news” came from the freedom that the Exodus offered them. The “problem of evil” that came from the Lord arose because the people forgot that the good they received came from the same Lord.
Moreover, no group or individual is safe. While in Jonah Nineveh hoped for the Lord’s grace, and Jonah complained, in Micah Israel wouldn’t count on the Lord’s grace, and so built an army and alliances by themselves. Now Nineveh is to be destroyed and the people built up. The Lord can and will bring everyone into the realization that only the Lord tears down and only the Lord builds up.