God is Just, pt.1
Written by Nathan Rose
Every year on the Fourth of July I take time out to read our Declaration of Independence. As you probably know, Thomas Jefferson was author of the Declaration of Independence. But what you may not know is that he is responsible for another work of literature, The Jefferson Bible. Yes, he has his own Bible. In this ‘Bible’—if that’s what you would like to call it—Jefferson literally cut out numerous sections of Scripture. Using a razor blade, he sliced out the verses he liked and pasted them into a new Bible called The Jefferson Bible. He then discarded ones he was uncomfortable with. You can purchase a copy of The Jefferson Bible on Amazon for about $5, although I wouldn’t recommend you do that.
Jefferson removed all the miracles that Jesus performed and anything referring to the supernatural. He removed all references to angels and prophecy. He took out any references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. He even cut out Jesus’ resurrection.
When we hear this, we recoil, right? You don’t cut out verses from the Bible! Your mother and your Sunday School teacher taught you better than that! You don’t get to pick and choose which passages of Scripture are important and relevant. God is the one decides that.
However, this is a pretty common practice. Professing Christians do this tall the time. To be sure, we don’t literally cut out passages out of our Bible. Instead, what we often do is overlook, downplay, or ignore certain passages. We don’t typically do it with miracles, the resurrection, or the supernatural. Most people are okay with those sorts of references. Instead, we dismiss the Bible’s emphasis on God’s wrath. This is exactly what Thomas Jefferson did. In addition to cutting out any miracles, he cut out any verses dealing with God’s judgment, condemnation, and all references to hell.
Unfortunately, the attribute of God’s wrath, is too often neglected, misunderstood, or even distorted. One reason this attribute is distorted is because certain people emphasize God’s wrath over and against his other attributes like his mercy and his love. Or, instead, they emphasize particular sins—usually ones they don’t struggle with—over and against other kinds of sin. They say, “Yeah, God’s wrath is reserved for those sinners over there.” Or the wrath of God is misunderstood because people can’t reconcile how a good and loving God could also be a God who expresses anger and vengeance. This attribute is neglected, misunderstood, and distorted.
The book of Nahum helps to correct this. Our study of this book and passage will help us to accurately view this important attribute. We will learn why God's wrath is necessary. We will see why God should be praised and adored for his wrath. We will see how this attribute is a comfort to those of us who are in Christ, and how it compels us to fulfill our mission as a local church to be and make disciples.
Before reading chapter 1, let me first set the context: this will take a little while, but if we don’t understand the context, we’ll get confused and miss the point and the purpose of this book.
This book was written by a prophet named Nahum, but we know virtually nothing about him. We know from verse 1 that he is from a city called Elkosh, but we don’t even know where that is, though some people believe it’s around the region of Galilee. What we do know about Nahum is that he is an author.
If you look at verse 1, you’ll notice that this prophecy came in the form of a “book.” Now typically, when prophets speak, they give their prophecy, they give their message, and then later on it is recorded and written down. That’s not the case with Nahum. He first writes out this prophecy, and Nahum tells us that this prophecy is against the city of Nineveh. We know a lot more about Nineveh than we do about Nahum.
Some of you are familiar with this city from the prophet Jonah. About a century earlier the prophet Jonah was sent by the Lord to Nineveh to call it to repentance. He told them that God’s wrath was going to be unleashed on them unless they repented. That’s exactly what they did. They fasted for 40 days, and they responded to Jonah’s message. Initially. Their repentance was short lived. Now, in Nahum’s time, they have relapsed. They have fallen back into the same sins they were committing a century earlier, and that is why this Scripture begins with an oracle concerning Nineveh.
The word ‘oracle’ typically refers to a message of disaster. It’s a message of impending calamity. ‘Oracle’ literally means ‘burden’; it’s something you put on someone that drags them down to the ground. Imagine fastening a cinder block to your neck, and then being asked to walk to the grocery store. That cinder block will pull you down. It’s going to be the burden that drags you to the ground. That’s an oracle, and that’s the kind of message regarding Nineveh.
At the time of this prophecy, the city of Nineveh was the capital of the nation of Assyria. And since Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, it represented this entire nation. As the capital it was symbolic for the entire nation of Assyria.
I want to give you three essential details about Assyria. Much more could be said, but I think these facts are essential to correctly interpreting and understanding the book Nahum. The first essential detail is this:
1) During this prophecy, Assyria was at the height of its power.
At that time, Assyria was the dominant force in the Ancient Near East. They were at the top of the food chain. Worldly speaking, they were in control of everyone and everything. And again, the city of Nineveh was representative of Assyria’s power and prestige. Nineveh was an extremely impressive and virtually impenetrable city. This is how one commentator described it:
[Nineveh] was one of the grandest and most powerful cities on earth. Its size, power, and wealth inspired fables. Its walls were a good picture of this magnificence. At least two series of walls surrounded the whole city, running on for miles and miles. The inner wall, the higher of the two, was about 100 feet high and broad enough for three chariots to race abreast. On the outside of the two sets of walls was a moat 150 feet wide and 60 feet deep. The Tigris and other small rivers surrounding Nineveh made the city appear impregnable. It was a gigantic city![i]
The city served like a picture of the nation. We’re told it took Jonah three full days to walk across Nineveh. This is because it was an exceedingly large city. So, Assyria is at the height of its power. It appears to be an invincible force. And Nahum, this unknown and unimpressive prophet, comes along, and he declares a prophecy of destruction against the most powerful city and nation on earth. This would have seemed like madness. It have appeared nearly impossible, and it even would have been dangerous for him to say these things. But he is compelled to do so because it is the word of the Lord.
2) Assyria was oppressing Judah, God’s people, and her inhabitants.
Prior to this prophecy, Assyria has been on a rampage, taking over nations. One of the nations they have demolished was the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Recall that when Rehoboam was king, the kingdom of Israel split into two: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC and ransacked the capitol, Samaria, completely wiping it out along with everyone in it. Then they scattered the inhabitants of that land. So, at this point, the Northern Kingdom is no more. There is no Israel because of Assyria.
In the process, Assyria has also gained control over the Southern Kingdom, Judah. They have oppressed Judah for the last century. Judah has been forced to pay tribute to Assyria and is enslaved by Assyria. Judah is still alive, but barely. And they are barely alive because of the harsh oppression of Assyria, which leads to the third detail:
3) Assyria was unspeakably ruthless and cruel.
Not only was Assyria ruthless and cruel, but they were proud of it. They kept records of how they treated their captives. Archaeologists have discovered these records, and they tell us that the Assyrians would flay their victims. That is, they would cut strips of skin off their victims while they were still alive. They also beheaded them, impaled them, and burned them alive—even children and infants. They gouged out their victim’s eyes and dismembered their bodies, severing their hands, feet, noses, ears, tongues, and even genitalia. They would kill so many people during their conquests that they would boast they had no place to bury all the corpses. As a result, they would pile the corpses into these giant mounds and leave them to rot. One commentator described Assyria’s cruelty this way: “In terms of atrocities perpetrated, the Assyrian empire has to be ranked with the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot and the Uganda of Idi Amin.”[ii]
Assyria was so fierce, cruel, and unrelenting that they were feared by all the surrounding nations. In fact, the very last verse in the book of Nahum says: “All who hear the [bad] news about you will clap their hands because of you, for who has not experienced your constant cruelty?” (Nah. 3:19). When Assyria eventually fell, everyone celebrated.
Nineveh fell under God’s judgment not because it was prosperous or powerful—though it was—but because it was perverse. They were corrupt, cruel, and had no regard for human life. That’s the historical backdrop for the book of Nahum.
Outline and Summary
With the historical context set, let's look at Nahum 1. Here’s a simple outline of this first chapter:
Verse 1 is an introductory comment, presenting the subject and what this subject is about.
Verses 2-8 are a hymn. This is a song to Yahweh, praising him for his many attributes. It describes him as this divine warrior.
Verses 9-15 is a prophecy of harm against Nineveh, as well as a promise of hope to Judah. These two are intertwined: Nahum goes back and forth between this prophecy of harm and this promise of hope. We won’t get to verses 9 through 15, but it’s important to understand what’s going on so let me give you a summary statement: Nahum presents an awesome and terrifying view of a sovereign God, who will exercise his just judgment against Nineveh for her cruelty and idolatry, while at the same time offering hope and relief to the oppressed people of God.
First, let’s look at this hymn of praise to the Lord (verses 2-8). Some have called this a hymn of hate, but that is a blasphemous mischaracterization because this hymn reflects the holy nature of God and reveals some of his essential attributes. There are seven attributes of the Lord listed here.
The Lord is Jealous
The first attribute is this: The Lord is jealous. When we think of jealousy, we usually think of it as a negative attribute. Somebody is insecure, so they are jealous all the time. That is not the case here when it describes the Lord. The Lord’s jealousy refers to the zeal that he has not only to protect his name from dishonor, but also to protect his people from harm. In Exodus, when God reveals his name to Moses, he explains that he does not tolerate his glory being shared with anyone or anything. He is jealous in that sense for his name. But in addition to that, this attribute means that God does not tolerate his covenant people being mistreated; in other words, he is jealous for their well-being. He is jealous for their protection.
I’ll give you an illustration of this. Recently my wife and I were watching the evening news, and they aired this horrible story of an older man who went to a pool and was exposing himself to little girls. One little girl who was exposed went and told her dad, and you can guess what the dad did. He went and found that guy, and he was jealous for his daughter’s protection. That’s the idea being communicated here. In the same way that dad was jealous to protect his daughter from harm, so the Lord is jealous to protect his people from harm. He goes to battle for them because he is a jealous God.
The Lord is Avenging
The second attribute: The Lord is avenging. These two attributes are connected: because he is jealous, he is also avenging. Three times this hymn emphasizes God’s vengeance, particularly his vengeance on those who harm his people. This attribute describes in a general sense the just recompense that God pays to sinners for every act of their rebellion. So this attribute is not a bad thing; rather, it is beneficial. It is beneficial because it is associated with keeping justice and maintaining lawfulness. If you get rid of this attribute of God, he is no longer a just God. He is no longer a God who will maintain lawfulness in his creation. So the idea of this word is that of just retribution, not some sort of sense of misguided revenge.
Understanding this attribute dissuades us from taking out revenge on other people. This attribute of God enables us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. King David understood this attribute. Before he was king, Saul was repeatedly abusing him, trying to murder him. How did David respond? What did David do? David said, “May the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.” (1 Samuel 24:12) David understood that the Lord is a vengeful God and therefore knew that he did not need to take vengeance against Saul into his own hands. He just said, “I trust you, Lord, that you’ll handle it, and that I don’t need to do it.”
Paul also understood this attribute when he wrote to the church in Rome, “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:19). You don’t have to harm people who harm you. Why? Because you know that God is a vengeful God. When wronged by someone else, there’s no need to take vengeance into our own hands because we rightly understand that God will avenge any and all wrong that is done against us and others.
The Lord is Wrathful
God’s vengeance is a result of his jealousy; it is in line with his justice, and it is coupled with his wrath, which leads to the third attribute: The Lord is wrathful.
Nahum tells us the Lord is full of wrath. The idea being expressed is that God stores up his wrath so that at the proper time he can dispense it on those who rebel and reject him. In other words, God does not fly off the handle. His anger towards sin and sinners is not irrational, but rather he exercises a calculated control over the unleashing of his wrath on his enemies.
This same idea of storing up God’s wrath is communicated in Romans 2:5. Paul says, “because of your hard and impenitent heart”—because you are continuing to pursue your sin and refuse to turn from it and trust in Christ—“you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.” It is our sin, disobedience, and rebellion against God and his Law that provokes God to wrath. The Bible tells us clearly that as we persist in sin, his wrath doesn’t eventually just fade away. Rather, his wrath is continually stored up for a day in which he will unleash it upon us.
This is how Jonathan Edwards describes the wrath of God in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It pictures God’s wrath like a dam that is continually increasing and only to be released when God says so.
"The wrath of God is like great waters that are dammed for the present; they increase more and more, and rise higher and higher, till an outlet is given, and the longer the stream is stopped, the more rapid and mighty is it’s course, once it is let loose. ‘Tis true, that Judgment against your evil works has not been executed up to this point; the floods of God’s Vengeance have been withheld; but your guilt in the meantime is constantly increasing, and you are every day storing up more wrath; the waters are continually rising; and there is nothing but the mere pleasure of God that holds the waters back; If God should only withdraw his Hand from the flood-gate, it would immediately fly open, and the fiery floods of the fierceness and wrath of God would rush forth with inconceivable fury, and would come upon you with omnipotent power; and if your strength were ten thousand times greater than it is, yea ten thousand times greater than the strength of the stoutest, sturdiest, devil in hell, it would be nothing to withstand or endure it."[iii]
God’s wrath is dreadful, and it is real. It is true that his wrath is not his only attribute, but Scripture makes clear that it definitely is one of his attributes. The attributes of God are not a buffet where we get to pick and choose what goes onto our plate. If we begin picking and choosing attributes, we reject the God of the Bible and construct a god in our own image.
Some people have suggested that this image of a wrathful God is limited to the Old Testament. We think the New Testament God is much kinder, so we stay away from the angry God in the Old Testament. But that’s false. The truth is God’s wrath is present and severe in both the Old and New Testament. In fact, it is so severe that when Christ returns, unbelievers will plead for the mountains and rocks to fall on them. They will cry out: “Fall on us and hide us from the face of [God], and from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16) That’s how terrifying the wrath of Christ will be when he returns. People would rather mountains fall on their faces than be exposed to it.
The greatest display of God’s wrath toward sin is not found in the Old Testament. It is found in the New Testament, where the Father unleashed his omnipotent, holy wrath onto his perfect, innocent Son, so that sinners like you and like me would not have to endure it. It is true that the Lord keeps wrath for his enemies, but in order to convert his enemies into sons and daughters, he unleashed his wrath on His Son, and now those who turn from their sin and trust in Christ will be reconciled and adopted as his children.
The Lord is Powerful
The fourth attribute: The Lord is powerful. Nahum says he is “great in power.” This refers to his brute physical strength. Not only is the Lord jealous, avenging, and wrathful, but the Lord possesses the power to execute and enforce his sovereign will. Look at the imagery used to describe the Lord’s unparalleled power in verse 3b-5.
The clouds in the sky that are too high for us to touch, but they are merely dust on the bottom of his feet. At his command the entire order of nature reverses. He causes the undoing of creation. He makes rivers and seas dry up. He makes the lush fertile pastures of Bashan and Carmel fade. And the green forests of Lebanon wither. The most stable mountains shake because of the Lord’s great power. The strongest rocks in all of creation are shattered into thousands of pieces when the Lord flexes his might.
The Lord is no pansy, nor is he a pushover. He is not a grandpa-like figure sitting on a rocking chair saying, “boys will be boys.” The Lord is great in power. He is sovereign. The Lord, and not Nineveh, is in charge. Nineveh is like dandelion spores the Lord will simply pick up out of the field and wipe out with a single breath.
Did you notice that Nahum does not begin this hymn by describing how nasty Nineveh is, but rather by describing God’s character? The Lord’s covenant name is used repeatedly. Ten times in chapter one and six times in this hymn, the Lord’s name is invoked. Contrast that with the usage of Nineveh’s name. Except for verse one, Nineveh isn’t even mentioned until the middle of chapter two. It’s mentioned only once in chapter three. Nahum does this intentionally. His point is that Nineveh is nowhere near being on the same level with the Lord. It is not powerful like the Lord our God. Nineveh is a nameless nobody compared to the strength, power, and sovereignty of God Almighty.
The Lord is powerful. He’s jealous, he’s avenging, he’s full of wrath, and he’s powerful. But he is also patient.
The Lord is Patient
The fifth attribute: The Lord is patient. Look at verse three: “The Lord is slow to anger.” This means God doesn’t lose his temper. He doesn’t have a hair trigger or a short fuse. He is a patient God. This word literally means ‘long of anger’ and what is being communicated is that God, in his goodness and mercy toward sinners, prolongs his anger, allowing people time to repent before he executes his just judgment. This is how one commentator describes it:
"Slow to anger does not present the Lord as a frustrated deity who eventually loses patience and strikes out against those who have thwarted him. It rather acknowledges that the Lord is reluctant to act against his creation, even when it is rebellion against him. He waits long to give the sinner opportunity to return in repentance. But he is not forgetful and will not condone sin. At a time of his choosing he will act decisively against it."[iv]
We should not presume upon the patience of God by thinking God is consenting to our sin. We must be quick to repent.
Peter also describes this attribute in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
This attribute is also illustrated in God’s dealings with Nineveh. He has given them plenty of time and opportunities to repent. In his mercy, he sent Jonah to them a century earlier to warn them of the wrath to come. Thankfully, they repented. But they have turned back. And now their time has run out. As you read this book you’ll note that there are no calls to repentance. It’s over, Nineveh. Your time has run out.
I don’t know where you are at spiritually, if you’re considering the gospel and the claims of Christ. If you're debating whether or not you should repent and trust in Jesus, I want to encourage you: do not presume upon the patience of the Lord. You don’t know when your time will run out. You may not get that second opportunity to repent. He may not grant it to you. Today is the day of salvation, turn from your sin, trust in Christ! The Lord is patient, but his judgement is inevitable.
The Lord is Just
The sixth attribute: The Lord is just. This attribute teaches us that the Lord is completely reliable and faithful when it comes to punishing sin. God will not wink at sin. He will not let disobedience slide. He won’t sweep transgressions under the rug. Verse three says “he will by no means clear the guilty.”
The word that’s employed here is a legal term. It refers to a court decision of letting an accused person go unpunished. God will not do that. He does not let guilty people off the hook. God’s wrath works in tandem with his justice. They go together. The moment someone denies God’s wrath and says, “I don’t like that kind of God,” then he or she is stripping God of his justice. To put this plainly: God’s wrath is necessary because God is just and because humanity is guilty.
Justice and wrath are both necessary to God’s nature. You cannot forfeit either one of them. So in one sense his justice and wrath are a very good thing. We see atrocities committed all the time, and we are reminded that God’s justice will always prevail. The bad guys will get what’s coming to them.
But in another sense, his wrath and justice are bad. They are bad for us because we are the bad guys. We are the guilty ones, and God’s justice demands that we receive his wrath. Nahum here is assuring us that God will bring judgment down on those who are guilty. Why? because God is just.
In verse six, Nahum asks two rhetorical questions that require an answer in the negative. He asks, “Who can stand before the Lord’s indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger?” The answer is no one. No one can. Not you, not me. Not the most moral, righteous, religious person you know. No one can stand before his indignation. No one can endure the heat of his anger. No one, except for Jesus. And that’s exactly what he did. Although Jesus was perfectly innocent, he endured the wrath and indignation of God in order to rescue guilty sinners like ourselves.
That is the gospel message. God’s wrath was poured out like fire onto Jesus so that we could be saved from it. God’s justice demands a guilty verdict for us, but Jesus suffered in our place in order to vindicate God’s justice and to rescue us from his wrath. And the great news is that we do not have to work for this pardon. We don’t contribute anything to this pardon except the need for it. We simply receive this pardon by faith. We receive it by trusting in Jesus, by trusting in God and his Word, that he will rescue all those who come to him with empty hands of faith.
The Lord is Good
This leads to the seventh attribute: The Lord is good. He does good and is good.
After setting forth a terrifying picture of God as a divine warrior (verses 1-6), Nahum stops to assure God’s people of God’s goodness. If they are trusting in the Lord, then the Lord is for them. He is not against them. Look at verse seven: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.”
The picture that is being illustrated here is that of going into and hiding in a storm cellar and remaining there, safe from the storm that rages outside the cellar. The Lord is the storm cellar that we flee to and hide in. For those who do not oppose God, but rather trust him and submit to his gracious and kind rule, he is a stronghold during difficult times. He is a refuge when days are dark. He is the place we can flee to in order to hide from danger and find rest for our weary souls.
Christian, I want to remind you of that. Maybe you or a loved one are facing death. Maybe you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one. Maybe you or someone you know is has a debilitating disease. Maybe you’re finding it extremely difficult to remain content in your current situation or maybe you’re facing anxiety about a future prospect. Maybe you’ve given into sin for umpteenth time this week and can’t shake your guilt and your condemnation. No matter what difficulty, no matter what tribulation, no matter what trial you are facing, whether it be great or small, remember: Christ cares for you and he alone provides you with the rest, the security, the peace, the solace, the comfort that your weary soul needs.
The Lord is good. He is a stronghold and refuge for those who trust in him. God's power and wrath are used not only to destroy his enemies, but also to defend those who trust in him.
[i]Mark Dever, The Message of the Old Testament: Promises Made, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 816.
[ii]J. L. Mackay as quoted in Gordon Bridger, The Message of Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2010), 92.
[iii]Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” in The World’s Greatest Speeches, fourth edition, eds. Lewis Copeland, Lawrence W. Lamm, Stephen J. McKenna, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1999), 227.
[iv]John L. Mackay, Exodus, (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2001), 563.