Sermon by Helen Paynter, based on Nahum 1:2-10,15, and 3:1-3, with attention also to Eph 2 11-22.
How primitive Nahum is! How quaint yet savage. “The Lord is avenging and wrathful” – we don’t believe that sort of thing these days! Anticipating and celebrating the bloody end of one’s enemies – we wouldn’t ever do anything so primitive, would we? In these enlightened times, we are all chill and zen, aren’t we? And we would never dream of speaking of God as anything other than a fluffy teddy bear in the sky, would we?
Except… except… that time when someone dangerously cut you up on the motorway. What you said in the privacy of your car wasn’t quite so zen, was it?
Or that time you got ripped off by that workman or market trader. You weren’t so chill about that, were you?
But of course, those instances were different. They were exceptional. And you didn’t actually call down curses on anyone, or pray for their massacre, did you? So that makes it all okay. Nahum is primitive, we are civilised.
Nahum’s invective is aimed at the Assyrians, that cruel nation which had previously swooped down from the north, laying waste to Israel and half of Judah. In Nahum’s time, Judah is a vassal of that brutal empire. The Assyrians relished inflicting extreme pain and humiliation upon those they had conquered. For example, on one of the sculptured reliefs found in Ashurbanipal’s palace there is a scene featuring the king and queen celebrating victory over the Elamites. Near the banqueting table is a fruit tree with the severed head of the king of Elam dangling from one of its branches. And that is one of the more palatable stories that I could tell you about the Assyrians.
This is what the people of Judah have been enduring. And it is in this context that Nahum opens his book with an anticipation of God’s vengeance upon the Assyrians:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.
But before we are too quick to condemn Nahum and his quest for vengeance, we should perhaps listen to some contemporary stories.
Musa lives in Taiz, a city in Yemen, site of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. One day his two sons Omar and Mahmoud were playing outside their home. Maybe they’d got used to the sound of artillery fire. In any case, they probably didn’t hear the shell coming towards them. When it landed, it killed Mahmoud outright, and badly wounded Omar.
The weapons of war, the destruction they cause and the terror they strike! As Nahum says,
The crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead,
I wonder if Musa prays for vengeance against those who sent that mortar crashing down upon his family. Would we blame him if he does?
Luidmyla is a 75 year old retired teacher who lives in what used to be a peaceful village near Kherson, Ukraine. Her home was overrun by the Russians in March this year. After the frontline troops came the pro-Russian militia, who were even worse, terrorising the village and taking three young men away to torture them. Late on the evening of 13th July there was a knock on her window. By the time the militia-man left, six hours later, she had been rifle-whipped, cut, raped, and her home had been shot up.
The brutality of an occupying army! As Nahum says
City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty— no end to the plunder!
I wonder if Luidmyla, like Nahum, prays for vengeance on the man who attacked her. Would we blame her if she does?
Chase was a teenager at a high school in the USA, keen on sports and with a dream of becoming a professional football player. One day a man walked into his school with a shotgun. Chase’s best friend died, and Chase himself was shot in six places. He still has a fragment of a bullet in his heart. He suffers with PTSD and can’t stand being in large crowds.
Random violence and the carnage it wreaks! As Nahum says
piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end— they stumble over the bodies!
I wonder if Chase, like Nahum, prays for vengeance on his attacker. Would we blame him if he does?
So perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn Nahum as primitive, savage, and brutal in his thirst for vengeance, And when we encounter those who do call down the judgment of God upon their enemies, perhaps we should consider carefully before we label them as vengeful and hateful. Maybe there is some terrible wrong there, maybe there is a call to action that we must heed.
And perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we wouldn’t do exactly the same in that situation. Because if we have never cried out for vengeance against our enemies, it might not be because we are so progressive, so pacifist, so Christian; it might simply be because we have not suffered a trauma bad enough to drive us to it.
So does that mean it’s fine to call down curses on everyone: right, left and centre? To take Nahum’s invocation of divine judgment as a standard pattern for our conduct and our prayers? To position ourselves as victims against the evil “other”? To assume that God is on our side?
Well, perhaps we should proceed with caution. Listen again to Nahum’s description of the God he is invoking:
The LORD is slow to anger but great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire.
This is not a tame God. Are we sure we want to invoke this God? This God who by no means clears the guilty? Are we sure that God is on our side? This God who is like a whirlwind, like a raging fire?
I suggest that we proceed with caution, because we might find that the whirlwind comes charging in our direction; that the fire burns towards us, not away from us.
Because the injustices and abuses of Nahum’s day have many echoes in our own. And – here’s the thing – if we are honest, we are far more likely to be found on the side of the abuser than the side of the victim.
We might think of our rabid consumerism, which drives the climate crisis. Of our xenophobia, vilifying those who have fled in desperation to our shores. Of our individualism, privileging our own comforts above the needs of others. Our failure to hold our political leaders to account.
He will by no means clear the guilty.
Because – here’s the thing – God is implacably opposed to all forms of injustice and evil, whether that takes place over there or right here. Whether it happens abroad or at home. Whether it is committed by governments or by churches. Whether it is done by people who act under that ideology or religion, or by those of us who act in the name of Jesus Christ. In fact, as we discover again and again throughout Scripture and in the teaching of Jesus, God expects more from those of us who set ourselves to speak in his name. Better to have a millstone around our neck and be thrown into the sea, than to be found to have caused harm to a little one.
He will by no means clear the guilty.
So we should be careful about invoking the whirlwind. We should be very wary before we call down the fire. We should not presume that God is on our side or assume that we will escape his judgment.
What a mess we have made of our world! Where we pitch ourselves against one another and project onto one another all that we despise about ourselves. Where we hurl insults and accusations, crying “foul” while committing exactly the same offences ourselves. Where we commit violence with our words and permit violence with our indifference. Where we position ourselves as victims rather than acknowledging our complicity. Where we start aggressive wars in the name of self-defence. Where we nurture grievances, reawake harmful memories, and indoctrinate our children to do the same. Where we invoke God, as if he were a tame deity who is as blind to our faults as we are.
Friends, we dance every day on the very edge of utter ruin. We stand every day as objects of divine vengeance.
He will by no means clear the guilty.
But unexpectedly, right in the middle of Nahum’s invective, at the heart of his cry for vengeance, there is a moment where the light breaks in.
Look! On the mountains the feet of one who brings good tidings, who proclaims peace!
In the midst of the carnage, Nahum glimpses a hope. A messenger who will bring good tidings. Good tidings: do you know that word? You should. It can also be translated gospel.
Someone is coming. A messenger who bears good news, who proclaims peace.
In Nahum’s time, this is only a distant hope. He will not see it in his day. And, most likely, he has no idea of the scope what he is glimpsing. Because the one who is coming has good tidings for Judah – and for the Assyrians. He will proclaim peace for God’s people – and for God’s enemies.
Because one dark night, when the earth was still as violent in Nahum’s time, the sky was torn apart with angels singing “Good tidings of great joy for all the people. ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.’”
And as the apostle tells us,
He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.