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Justice and Deliverance
Winter Quarter: Justice, Law, History
Unit 1: God Requires Justice
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 26, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Nahum 1
Key Scripture (NIV):
“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies.” Nahum 1:2
- To better understand progressive revelation as we read the prophet Nahum.
- To better grasp the beauty and wonder of God’s patient love.
- To better understand the dynamic of judgement as it relates to grace.
- To better grasp the hope that always emerges from adversity.
I confess struggling with this particular text on the day after Christmas. After basking in the sweet glow of the nativity it seems a sudden sharp turn to head for Nahum. As a matter of fact, on the surface it appears to be a turn of 180 degrees. From the nativity to Nahum we move from birth to violence. We move from sacrificial love to judgement. And, we move from comfort to challenge.
Nevertheless, those who plan our lessons want to ensure we do not cherry-pick the texts we study. We should read all of Scripture and seek to understand every facet of the sacred writ. I prayed to understand some connection between last week’s messianic text from Isaiah to the prophetic text of Nahum years earlier. One expression of truth was evident. Sin did not “take a break” during the Christmas nativity. Injustice, neglect, apathy and hate continued to exist. The beauty of the Gospel is the reality that beneath this dark current of violence and oppression is a “river of living water.” Behind and beneath the scenes of suffering and adversity is the movement of God’s redeeming love in the world. We often overlook the fact that the story of Jesus’ birth contains the story of Herod ordering the deaths of innocent children two years of age and under. There exists deceit in the story as Herod seeks to trick the Magi into helping him find and destroy the King of the Jews. Let us not forget what Joseph and Mary must have experienced from their strict Jewish culture. She was with child before the marriage was consummated. The finger pointing had to bother young Mary. The social scorn would not have been intended for Joseph, however, from what we read of his character, it would have bothered him. Without doubt he cared for Mary. Joseph considered putting her away but was warned against doing so. The trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem was anything but easy. Imagine being nine months pregnant and having to journey by walking, or riding a burro, for at least five days. After arriving late in Bethlehem they must settle for shelter among the animals in what was most likely a grotto. The beauty of Christmas was occurring beneath the backdrop of difficulty.
Even the story of the Magi is revealing. The Magi live in the East. The Star of Bethlehem rose in the western sky. They were to travel westward to find the Messiah. Most religions ascribe great religious significance to the East. The sun rises in the east, driving away the darkness. The Eastern Gate in Jerusalem has great messianic significance. Since traveling toward the east was understood as a spiritual journey toward light, traveling west was thus a journey into the darkness. Messiah would be found by the Magi in the west, the direction of sunset and darkness. Thus, God is present in both joy and suffering.
Nahum is a prophetic book about the darkness in which Israel lived. Isaiah 9 called to people groping in “deep darkness.” Nahum describes that darkness. Israel understood darkness as it related to their social and national suffering. When another national power suppressed and oppressed God’s people it was “darkness.” For the disciples of Jesus, darkness was initially the presence of Rome in their promised land. They desired a messiah who would overthrow Rome and all enemies. Of course, Jesus reminded and taught them repetitively that his kingdom “was not of this world.” Read John 17. Prior to Rome, the dark power was Babylon. Prior to Babylon the dark power was Assyria. Nineveh was the most violent, sinful city in Assyria. Nahum is declaring God’s judgement on Nineveh.
The book of Nahum therefore can serve as a resource toward understanding the difficult history of God’s people as the northern and southern kingdoms fell. The Israelites truly believed they lived in darkness as long as another power ruled them. Accompanying the foreign powers was the worship of pagan gods, and at times restrictions against worshiping the God of Israel. Thus, they were indeed groping, waiting for their Messiah.
As we consider our current culture and world, how would you describe the “days in which we live” in relation to God’s covenant fully expressed in Christ? Are we a people groping in the darkness? Do you believe there is an urgent desire for God’s light and love in Christ to break into our current circumstances? If so, how do we as individuals participate in that intervention? How do we as the church participate?
Solomon reigned over a united Israel. He greatly expanded their boundaries as the nation became a superpower in the near-eastern world. He had fulfilled his father’s dream of building the temple. The Jewish people began to complain in the latter years of Solomon’s reign. His expansions resulted in higher taxes which began to feel oppressive to the masses. Furthermore, the temple stood in Jerusalem in the far southern area of the kingdom. Those in the far north felt much of their offerings were supporting an area of Israel with which they felt disconnected. When the kingdoms divided, the northern kingdom said to the people of Judah, “Take care of your own house David!” which meant, “The temple is in your land, you pay for it!”
After Solomon’s death, his sons battled for the throne. Eventually, Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Samaria and the southern kingdom of Judah. The north worshiped God in Shiloh while those in the south worshiped in the Jerusalem temple. The newly divided kingdom could not withstand the mighty empires arising around them. One of those empires was Assyria, with its capital city of Nineveh. Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Many of the Jewish people were driven into exile. The fall of the north in 722 B.C. inflicted a physical, social and spiritual blow to God’s people. Over the next century Assyria fell to the powerful emerging empire of Babylon. The only remnant of the once flourishing nation of Israel was tiny Judah. Judah was no match for Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. The small nation fell in 586/87 B.C. Their beautiful temple, the most glorious and unifying structure of their faith, was razed and burned to the ground.
Questions began to arise regarding who was to blame. Blame is always the favored choice of behavior when adversity arises. Among those questions was the inquiry, “Where is God?” Israel possessed a faith rife with fatalism. That is, God made everything happen. If it rained, God made it rain. If drought occurred, God created the drought. If the nation conquered an enemy, God helped them. If they lost, God wanted them to lose. Almost always, Israel perceived loss and hardship as God’s judgement against them for their failure to remain faithful to covenant. The Retribution Principle proved a major dynamic in the Israelite understanding of God. The principle states that if one is faithful to God and covenant, they will be blessed. If one disobeys and breaks covenant, they will be cursed. Therefore, suffering was understood as the result of one’s sin, or a nation’s sin.
When the northern kingdom of Samaria fell to Assyria, God’s people believed their suffering to be the consequence of their disobedience. In reality, Israel was indeed guilty of such sin. Idolatry remained a temptation for Israel since their beginning. Remember, while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments Israel was creating a golden calf! The sin of idolatry flourished when covenant was neglected and worship of God diminished. King Ahab and his queen Jezebel serve as prime examples of the northern kingdom’s sinful existence and the nation’s destructive paganism.
The prophets called upon Israel to recognize such sin prior to the consequence. Most of the prophets were ignored. In later years, some prophets were even punished for daring to claim Israel would pay for its sins. Jeremiah was placed under house arrest for proclaiming the fall of the southern kingdom to Babylon. Again, prophets were cultural observers. They understood the culture’s relationship with God through the eyes of covenant. The Mosaic Law was the plumb line against which Israel was measured. Were the people obedient to covenant and faithful to God? If not, the prophet called the people to repent. Since the call of the prophets went unheeded, Israel suffered and eventually fell.
The prophet Habakkuk added another question to the chaos. Why did God allow a wicked people to punish God’s people, even if Israel was sinful? Eventually, Habakkuk grows to understand that the oppressive conquering nation would suffer as well. They were subject to God’s judgement, even more so than Israel. They were simply instruments God used to punish Israel for their sins.
As people who have experienced Jesus as light and truth, we possess a greater understanding of God’s grace. We understand the Bible to be “progressive revelation.” That is, God reveals the divine nature and intent to people at a particular time in history, in a manner they can understand. For example, in the earliest years of Israel’s life, sacrificing bulls and sheep was perceived and believed to be the means to atone for one’s personal sin and the corporate sin of Israel. However, later the prophet proclaims that God is sick and tired of such sacrifices for they do not emerge from a loving, obedient heart. Read Isaiah 1:11. Had God changed? Of course not! However, people who have experienced years of God’s grace should better understand the meaning beneath such sacrifices.
Thus, we read the book of Nahum from “this side of Jesus.” The book was written prior to Jesus, yet we read it as people enlightened and illuminated by Jesus. Consequently, let us seek to understand what this prophetic book has to say to us, a Christmas and Easter people.
Nahum lets us know from the onset that judgement is not the ultimate desire of God. God in no way delights in judgement. Though the judgement against Nineveh is harsh, we are reminded that it was not the immediate action of God. Prior to judgement is always God’s longsuffering. I especially like the term “longsuffering.” It reminds us that God is not “disconnected” from the pain of his people. God suffers with us. In a previous lesson I offered a quote from a film entitled “The Centurion.” A Roman general says to a subordinate concerning the role of the gods in battle, “It’s the soldiers who do the fighting, and soldiers who do the dying, and the gods never get their feet wet.” In this one memorable line we can hear the distinction between the Judeo-Christian God and the pagan gods in biblical history. It was difficult for pagan nations to believe a god would dare get too involved in human affairs. According to William Barclay, the Greeks understood the primary characteristic of god or gods was what he called apatheia. The term means the “total inability to feel any emotion whatsoever.” However, the revelation we receive in Judeo-Christian faith stands in stark contrast. God chooses to feel our pain. Perhaps the shortest verse in the Bible is also one of the most revealing: “Jesus wept.” At the tomb of Lazarus, the Son of God weeps uncontrollably.
What did Jesus say and does that reveals God’s choice to identify with our suffering? Can you identify events from the Gospels that reveal God’s patience and longsuffering? Where do you recognize God’s patience in your own life and faith? What should be our response to God’s choice to identify with his people? What should be our response to God’s patience toward us as we interact with others? Are we quick to judge and slow to love?
Consequently, anger is not the first emotion expressed by God toward us. In contrast, it is patience, understanding, and love. Judgement has always been the last resort. The prophets cried aloud for long periods of time for repentance. Prophets reminded God’s people of God’s goodness toward them and warned of the severe consequences of ignoring that goodness while choosing rebellion. Prior to describing the judgement of God toward Nineveh God first called the city and nation to repentance. The story of Jonah is important in our study. Jonah the prophet was called to travel to Nineveh. There he was to preach the coming judgement of God upon them for their violent paganism. Jonah had no desire to visit the pagan city. He must have thought, “Other prophets speak to Israel, yet I am called to go to a pagan nation!” His reluctance is understandable in that Nineveh was infamous for its violence. Jonah had no guarantee that he would not personally suffer as a result of his preaching. Of course, in the book of Jonah we learn that Jonah’s prophetic word had a transforming effect upon Nineveh and the people repented. Undoubtedly, their change of heart was short-lived. By the time Nahum appears in Nineveh’s history the city has reverted to its former violence. It is believed Nahum arrives some 150 years after Jonah. In chapter 4 of Jonah the prophet too recognizes God’s patience. In Jonah 4:2 the prophet states: “I knew that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” Again, God’s love called first, repeatedly, prior to the Lord’s judgement.
What does the life of Jesus teach us about God’s patience? What does the Apostle Paul have to say about the virtue of patience? Why do you think we so quickly blame God for our adversity, or interpret adversity as God’s judgement? Why do we so easily forget God’s patience
Until the early 600s B.C., Nineveh was the largest city in the known world. Even sources outside the Bible speak of Nineveh’s violence. The entire world was violent in those ancient years. Warfare was common. Most wars were fought hand to hand, face to face. Sadly, violence was becoming almost an acceptable way of life. When we are exposed to a reality over a long period of time, that reality will morph into the norm. I remember watching Hitchcock’s “Psycho” as a young boy. It was considered a film of horrific terror. In light of today’s horror genre, that movie appears mild. Our culture has become desensitized to such horror, and it requires even more horrific expressions of terror to frighten us. This should be an unsettling truth. God help us when we become insensitive to suffering! Violence was so common in the Old Testament era that many were losing the ability to value human life or to identify with the suffering of others. This was the great wickedness of Nineveh. Sadly, their pagan gods were created and embraced to endorse such violence. Again, we can understand Jonah’s reluctance to visit the city and preach of Israel’s God.
Can you identify areas of life in which we have become desensitized to wrong? To suffering? What can we do to avoid such desensitization? How can the church help us avoid becoming too accustomed to that which is destructive?
Many struggle with the violence ascribed to God in the Old Testament However, we must examine that violence in historical context. In relation to the violence in the world about them, Israel’s God was very different. God cared about his people. God was slow to anger and abounded in love. Above all, God offered forgiveness and a new beginning.
Still, any violence and judgement seem to stand in contrast to the life and teaching of Jesus. However, remember the Old Testament writers understood the world in a fatalistic manner. Violence was often ascribed and attributed to God when it was actually the behavior of humankind. Such violence was attributed to God when the violence helped God’s people. In other words, since Nineveh was an evil city, the violence that fell upon it was perceived as God’s judgement for that violence.
This pattern of attributing violence to God reveals some important dynamics. First, it shows the Jewish people did not understand God as having nothing to do with this world. God was a part of every facet of human life. Though they often struggled to understand the difference between the actions of God and the actions of humanity, still, God was real, and important to life.
We must also remember our belief in “progressive revelation.” People could see and experience God’s truth as they were able in the world in which they lived. The important dynamic for us to understand is that God is involved in human affairs, and we should seek to understand how God works in human life. Again, we do so on this side of Jesus. This does not mean the Old Testament is unimportant. We understand Jesus as we do because of what God revealed prior to his coming. Paul reminded us in Galatians that in the “fullness of time” God sent forth his Son. The timing was the right time, the perfect time. There had been a succession of previous revelations of God’s light, love, truth, and promise.
Still, how are we to deal with the issue of judgement in the Old Testament? God created the world in such a manner that what is sown is reaped. If we violate God’s created order there are consequences. If we abuse the world, we will suffer for our actions. Did God cause the exact form of suffering we experience? No. If society poisons the water with toxins, leading to cancers, God did not give us the cancer. Yet, God did create nature in a manner that such a consequence can occur. God’s judgement is present in natural and moral law. A person who lives a violent life will eventually suffer violence. In contrast, a kind, compassionate life will experience love and kindness. However, we live in the world together. The violence of another can invade and interrupt our life of kindness. Likewise, our life of kindness and love can interrupt the violent life of another. It is this interconnectedness of all living things that should drive us to our knees in prayer prior to making a judgement. God’s justice in the world can prove more complex than we understand. We seek prayerfully to understand all that is possible while recognizing there will always exists questions we cannot answer. It is for this reason that we are called to pray, study, and walk with the Lord.
Judgement is to be left to God. When calamity comes upon a people it can be the result of consequences of their own destructive behavior or it can be the result of human interaction. Again, good people can suffer from the bad choices of others, and vice versa. It is for this reason that we leave all judgement to God. We also recognize that there are definite consequences for destructive dehumanizing behavior. God knows what we do not. However, we are called to remember that God is in life and God’s Kingdom is present and moving in the world. We are to live in the love of Christ in a manner that enriches our own life, and invades and interrupts the lives of others.
Babylon, another pagan nation, conquered Assyria and its capital Nineveh. Nahum understands and proclaims this defeat as an expression of God’s judgement in the world. He recognizes that injustice and violence cannot avoid or sidestep judgement. Thus, Nahum proclaims: “the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.”
In discussing the issue of judgement it must be understood that this endeavor is complex. In the Old Testament it is as though the prophets see rays of light breaking through the dark clouds, and yet not yet seeing with perfect clarity. They see what they understand and are inspired by God to express what they see. How do we seek to reconcile God’s judgement in the book of Nahum with the teaching and life of Jesus? How are we to understand the Old Testament in light of the revelation of Jesus? How do you understand “progressive revelation” and how does this understanding affect your own study? Where do you recognize God’s judgement in creation? What do you think is meant by “reaping what we sow?” What do you believe is the danger of seeing all consequences as God’s judgement? What do you believe is the danger of refusing to see consequences as judgement? How does the issue of behavior and consequence effect the way you live your life? How does Jesus inform your understanding of this question?
Our text ends with an expression and image of hope. Nahum proclaims that Judah will once again worship the Lord! Whereas Jonah had been terrified to preach in Nineveh, God’s prophets will be welcomed, for they bring good news! As Assyria and the violent city of Nineveh are destroyed, a new world will emerge! It will be a world of peace!
The beauty of Old Testament prophetic literature is that the prophet never leaves us hopeless. Though there exists serious consequences for humanity when we act and live in a dehumanizing and destructive manner, we can change. We can repent and alter our manner of life. The promise of forgiveness and a new beginning are constant in the writings of the prophets. Nahum could be understood as a dark, judgmental book that celebrates the destruction of a nation. However, Nahum, like all prophets of God, understood this judgement as a prelude to a new reality of truth and liberation. Jesus Christ would become the embodiment of God’s continual call to new life. He would become the embodiment of a new beginning. He would be the embodiment of a new reality that is beyond our imagination.
In the Advent texts we revisited the words “In those days.” We revisited Isaiah’s description of those days as people groping in deep darkness. Nahum expresses the pain and fear of those days. However, Advent ends with the arrival of Messiah! Light has come! A new day has come! Nahum recognized God’s judgement upon Nineveh, but in the end glimpsed that new day.
When you read the promises of hope and redemption in the prophets, do you see them in Christ? In what manner? Since the prophets follow God’s judgement with the hope of a new day, what does this say about our struggles with adversity? What is the great hope you can take from Nahum?
Almighty God, though the Light has come in Christ, we still recognize the remnant of darkness. By your Spirit, empower us to feel no romance with that darkness. Teach us to seek your redemption in moments of adversity. Reveal to us our better selves as we learn from the consequences of our actions and perceptions. Empower us to be the feet of those proclaiming good news in a broken world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.