During the decline of the kingdom of Judah, God sent prophets to warn the people of their sins and to reveal and explain God’s purposes for the world. Nahum preached from Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah. Remember that King Josiah was the boy king who became the last godly king of Judah. He was crowned king at age 8, then at age 16 decided to follow the LORD, later in his 20’s he purged the land of the idols and false worship centers set up by his forefathers. Finally he rebuilt and cleansed the temple where in the process they found a hidden book of the law, which he read to the people of Judah, and then they renewed the covenant with the LORD.
It has been approximately 150 years since the prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh the capital of the Assyrian empire to deliver God’s message to that evil nation. Much to Jonah’s dismay the people of Nineveh repented of their sins and God spared Nineveh’s destruction at that time. Eventually the Assyrians reverted to their evil ways, thus God’s judgment was delayed but not cancelled. Israel and Judah suffered under the oppression of the Assyrians; in 722 BC they invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and deported all the people to separate areas throughout the Assyrian empire. Following the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah, but God miraculously saves Judah and the Assyrians retreat to Nineveh. However, the threat of that violent and evil nation remained persistent to Judah.
Assyria was known for their cruelties, they terrorized the near east for almost 200 years. They encouraged the spread of fear through amplifying stories of their cruelty; they made public examples of those who resisted their rule. Not only did they destroy and burn the cities of the nations they conquered, they also subjected them to humiliation, extreme suffering and did everything to completely wipe out the people groups so they could never regain any sort of tribal or national unity.
Assyria’s control over the conquered nations is crumbling; first the Babylonians gain their independence from Assyria then combine their forces with the Medes and Scythians to destroy Nineveh in 612 BC. The audience for Nahum’s prophecy and prediction of the destruction of Nineveh was Judah, who has suffered for many years under their cruelty and threat. The message is that the rule of the Assyrians is coming to an end, and that end will be by the hand of God. God is the LORD of History; God announces the eminent destruction of Assyria and God will bring it about! The LORD will bring judgement upon Assyria because of their great sin. “The LORD is a zealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and very angry. The LORD takes vengeance against his foes; he sustains his rage against his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger but great in power; the LORD will certainly not allow the wicked to go unpunished. He marches out in the whirlwind and the raging storm; dark storm clouds bill like dust under his feet.” Nahum describes God in relation to various impressive and frightening natural phenomena and against this judgment of the LORD no one can stand. The LORD relented during the time of Jonah; nothing can stop this coming judgement.
Compared to the disaster coming to Assyria, Nahum describes the LORD as a fortress in times of distress, that He protects those who seek refuge in Him. The LORD will “break Assyria’s yoke from your neck; I will tear apart the shackles that are on you” The LORD has issued a decree against Assyria, He will destroy your idols, your temples, your dynasty will come to an end. Nahum announces this as good news to people of Jerusalem, it is time to celebrate your festival, because never again will Assyria invade them, they will be completely destroyed.
Nahum then describes the coming defeat of Assyria, the enemy is marching out to burn their chariots, tear down their walls so they will never be able to rebuild again. This will be accomplished by the Babylonians as foretold in Isaiah, but Nahum declares that it is the LORD who commands armies and that it is the LORD who is against Assyria!
When Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BC, the city was completely destroyed by a flood that demolished the cities walls as described by Nahum. Later historians’ record that when Alexander the Great fought a battle nearby that he did not know that there had ever been a city there. The fulfillment of Nahum’s prophecy was so widespread that the ruins of Nineveh were not discovered by archeologists until 1850.
Nahum’s name means comfort or consolation; this message would have provided comfort to the people of Judah that the evil of Assyria will be judged by the LORD and that the people of Judah will have relief from their oppression. For us who see the evil of today and the oppression of the innocent, we too find comfort in the sure knowledge that the evils of today will not go unpunished that the LORD God is still the LORD of History!
After the good king Josiah’s death, his son Jehoahaz was anointed as king. When the Babylonians began to attack the Assyrians, Jehoahaz attempted to stop Egypt from going to Assyria’s support. This plan failed and Jehoahaz was captured by the Egyptians, who placed his brother Jehoiakim on the throne of Judah as Egypt’s vassal state. Jehoiakim will reign for 11 years, this was tumultuous time he rebelled against Egypt, allied Judah to Babylon, and then rebelled against Babylon which finally resulted in Nebuchadnezzar and his allies attacking Judah.
It was during this time period that Habakkuk prophesied, his message was not directed to Israel or other nations. Habakkuk records his conversation or argument between the prophet and the LORD. He represents the godly in Judah who are struggling to understand God’s ways and plans. Habakkuk agues with God over his lack of action against the wicked, the lack of justice for the godly and questions why God would use such a wicked nation to punish Israel. Habakkuk addresses God in the form of questions. “God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen? How many times do I have to yell, Help! Murder! Police! Before you come to the rescue? Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day? Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place. Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke. The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head.” (The Message)
The questions about evil, injustice and sin in Habakkuk’s day are the same questions about evil that we have today. This is not just about nations or politicians, but about us individually and the church too. How do we confront sin? Do we normalize it? Do we remove the negative consequences, with good intentions, but our efforts result in more evil and condone sin?
God’s answer to Habakkuk is that He is raising up Babylon, “that ruthless and impetuous people”, Habakkuk plea to the LORD about how long does he need to wait will be answered in his lifetime by the evil of Babylon. Habakkuk cannot see the justice in Israel being punished by an even greater evil nation like Babylon; he questions why the Babylonians would be allowed to conquer Judah completely. Habakkuk recognizes that God has ordained the Babylonians to punish Judah for their sins, but questions the use of the unrighteous in God’s plan. “Why do you say nothing when the wicked devour those more righteous than they are?”
Habakkuk refers to Israel as being more righteous than the wicked Babylonians, but we know just how far Israel then Judah has strayed from the LORD. We are like Habakkuk, we often consider ourselves more righteous because we compare ourselves to others; we need to compare ourselves to the Holy God not to other sinful people. In the same way, when confronted with our sins, we compare ourselves to other Christians’ who sin in different ways, then justify or excuse our sins because others sin too. Once more, if we feel compelled to compare ourselves, we should compare ourselves to the Holy God not to other people.
God answers Habakkuk and reveals that He will hold the Babylonians responsible for their evil. “And then God answered: write this. Write what you see. Write it out in big block letters so that it can be read on the run. This vision-message is a witness pointing to what’s coming. It aches for the coming-it can hardly wait! And it doesn’t lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait. It’s on its way. It will come right on time.” (The Message)
We learn several things from Habakkuk lament, that God considers honest questions, that God is concerned for all who suffer, and that God will move in His appointed time, all of history is in God’s hands culminating in the Day of Lord.
Habakkuk concludes his message with a prayer in the form of a Psalm, which remembers all the ways God has acted in the history of Israel. Habakkuk recounts God’s demonstration of power in the Exodus, at Mt. Sinai, in the plagues of Egypt, and in the victories of the conquest of the Promised Land. Habakkuk’s final words express faith in God’s good purposes, “when I heard it, my stomach did flips. I stammered and stuttered. My bones turned to water. I staggered and stumbled. I sit back and wait for Doomsday to descend on our attackers. Though the cherry trees don’t blossom and the strawberries don’t ripen. Though the apples are worm-eaten and the wheat fields stunted, though the sheep pens are sheepless and the cattle barns empty, I am singing joyful praise to God. I’m turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God. Counting on God’s rule to prevail, I take heart and gain strength. I run like a deer. I feel like I’m king of the mountains!” (The Message)
Some think that people of faith don’t ever question God, but we learn from Habakkuk that this is not true. Those who trust in God can and do question God and wait on a clear message from the LORD to clarify. Also, we learn that we don’t always get the answer that we want or expect. Finally, do we respond in faith like Habakkuk when we get answers we don’t want or understand? Do we still have faith that God is in control of history and that He will protect and preserve His people from the evil that exists today!