God is that than which

A Greater can not be Thought

 

Nahum 1:1-8

 

Tom J. Nettles

 

In Anselm’s marvelous expression of intense prayer to God entitled Proslogion, he confessed, “Now we believe that thou art a being than which none greater can be thought.” In the course of discussion he proceeds to say, “What art thou, save the highest of all beings, alone self-existent, who hast made all other things from nothing.” After some prayerful discussion of the natural attributes of God and their perfections, he proposes this question to God, “But how canst thou spare the wicked if thou art wholly just and supremely just? For how does the wholly and supremely just do something that is not just. But what justice is there is giving eternal life to one who deserves eternal death?” As he proceeds contemplating this dilemma, Anselm eventually recognizes, “Accordingly thy mercy is born of thy justice, because it is just for thee to be so good that thou are good in sparing (as well as in punishing). In order to give a full answer to this interesting, and disturbing, juxtaposition of attributes, Anselm eventually wrote Why the God-Man, a discussion of the incarnation and the atonement. This tension marks the passage before us this week.

 

!. About whom the message is delivered

A. It is an oracle – It came as authoritative oration from God himself. It can also be translated “burden,” and in this case it should manifest that double meaning. This is an oracular revelation of the holy power of God that insures the heavy weight of wrath that is sure to come.

 

B. It concerns Nineveh

1. The destruction of Nineveh is described in 2:2-12 and 3:1-3 in a dramatic—almost frantic—series of vignettes showing the terror and panic of a people under the siege of a powerful, relentless, and cruel foe.

2. Jonah, the prophet, during the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel about 780 BC was sent to Nineveh with a message of impending destruction that brought the entire city, beginning with the king, to repentance. That repentant generation has passed, and now, about 120 years later they have returned to their ways of sin and cruelty.

3. Though using a godless people that themselves will be punished (Babylon), God strides forth as the progenitor of this exquisite and frightening slaughter: 2:13 (“Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions”) and 3:5, 6 (“Behold, I am against you, etc”). The fall of Nineveh occurred in 612, about fifty years after their merciless assault on Egypt.

4. The cruelty of the Assyrian empire is documented in 3:8-10 in its bloody slaughter at Thebes under Ashurbanipal in 664 BC. A generation earlier, under Shalmaneser, Assyria had taken the northern kingdom, Israel into exile. Also, very near that time, during the reign of Hezekiah in Judah, Sennacherib attached Judah, taking all the fortified cities, and placed an army outside the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18, 19). Through his emissaries he insulted the God of Jerusalem (19:9-13). He left, however, without shooting an arrow, for the death angel came at night and killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (19:35).

 

C. It is a Book of a vision given to Nahum – Note that God did not tell Nahum to go to Nineveh and preach, but gave him a vision to be put in a book. It would serve as a witness to God’s power, holiness, and control of all nations when the events described came to pass.

 

II. The Paradigmatic expression given to Moses – Exodus 33:19; 34:6, 7 – This book employs the revelation of God’s goodness to Moses as its foundational assumption. This presentation of the divine glory to Moses in the mountain is a precursor to, and finds ultimate fulfillment in, the appearance of Jesus in a transfigured state to Moses and Elijah when they spoke of his “exodus” from this world.

A. The revelation given to Moses is summarized in the preparatory statement, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” (Exodus 33:19)

B. His goodness establishes the just prerogative of his manifestation of mercy to whomever he wills (19).

C. He announced his name, The Lord, in verse 19 and then twice in 34:6. By this name, this self-existent deity, creator of all and ruler over all, identifies himself as the particular Lord of the Israelites who has selected them, redeemed them from captivity, and will use them for the purpose of manifesting the true power and covenantal faithfulness indicated by this name.

D. He shows his characteristics of mercy and grace, but puts it in the context of the absolute certainty that he will “by no means clear the guilty” but will surely, generation after generation, punish those that are iniquitous. In justice he will press the course of iniquitous behavior from one generation to another as a demonstration of the thorough depravity of mankind, but will interrupt this course of iniquity and punishment in freely chosen mercy, based on a covenantal love that he places on some of this corrupt race (1 Peter 2:9, 10).

 

III.  Verse 2, 3a - The Certain Manifestation of holy vengeance

A. The Jealousy of God is seen as foundational to his wrath. Jealousy as an attribute of the creature is sinful. It is fundamental, however, to the perfections of God. It would not be a virtue for him not to be jealous, for none should be permitted to detract from his excellence. His destruction of the inhabitants of the land promised to Abraham when his descendants came up from Egypt, and his forbidding their consorting with them in any way was based on his jealousy (Exodus 34:13-15).

 

B. His jealousy establishes the foundation of vengeance and wrath.

1. Vengeance is an attribute that is expressed in light of wrong-doing, and God alone knows what is the proper display of vengeance (Romans 12:19). The word group for “Vengeance” is used three times.

2. Wrath consists of the degree of fury, anger, and intensity of punishment due to every one.

C. By definition, opposition to God deserves vengeance. “The Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries.” This will certainly be displayed in an appropriately measured and manifest presentation of wrath – “And keeps wrath for his enemies.”

D. God’s slowness to anger in this context indicates that, though he does not exact punishment immediately for every transgression, he certainly will do so. His power enables him to do all that he determines (“great in power”), and his absolute holiness and his jealousy for his glory means that, though it may delay, “He will by no means clear the guilty.”

 

IV. Verses 3b – 5 – God is limitless and irresistible in power – This focuses on a natural attribute that serves his moral attributes.

A. Whirlwind and storm are not random events that arise without any precise purpose behind them, but they are manifestations of the “Way” of God. They are the dust of his feet.

B. Nahum is given the vision of God’s control of all the phenomena of nature. Mountains, and rivers, and massive forests, and the heaving of the earth—all this belongs to God and is used for his moral purposes. When it is quiet and sustained in beauty and stability, God does that. When rivers roar and overflow, and earthquakes bring destruction, fear, and death, God does that.

 

V. Verses 6 and 8 - His power expressed in his zeal for holiness means that nothing evil will escape its due punishment

A. No one should live with the delusion that God either does not have the power to punish or he has no cause to punish, or that he has no will to punish. It will certainly come though he is slow to anger. The wrath will clearly express his indignation, that is, his righteous anger displayed in a way commensurate with the infinite affront to his worthiness.

B. When this comes, either as temporal judgment, or as that time of settled irreversible final judgment, no one will stand. In this life, the ungodly will complain that these times of temporal display of wrath are unfair and they will call into question the love and justice of God. Gilbert O’Sullivan spoke for a generation some forty years ago in putting to song our tendency to make God the lackey to our immediate desires and to question him if he does not step to: “Leaving me to doubt talk about God in his mercy, for if he really does exist, then why did he desert me?”

C.  At the final assize, however, the ungodly will hate this demonstration of holy wrath, but they will know that it is just (though they hate justice as a virtue); they also will know that they cannot escape.

D. The punishment will be worthy of both his power and his holiness. It will feel like it cannot be endured (“who can stand . . . who can endure”).

E. When this wrath is executed in this life, his enemies will come to a complete end and they will have no more time, power, or place to challenge the authority of God. When it is executed in eternity, it will never end but will result in the eternal pursuit of God against his enemies into the horrors of eternal darkness.

 

VI. Verse 7 - At the same time, He himself is the only refuge from his own wrath.

A. God’s goodness, as Anselm noted, is also expressed in mercy even as it is in justice. So, his goodness establishes a stronghold to protect those recipients of mercy in the day when his jealous vengeance and wrath is displayed.

B. He has personal knowledge of those that have taken refuge in him for he has known them, in Christ, before the foundation of the world (1 Thessalonians 5:9). “By two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Hebrews 6:18) This refuge is a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul, for the two unchangeable things are the sacrificial death of Christ for our sins and his resurrection to the right hand of the Father to intercede for us on the basis of his righteousness.