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The book of Nahum does not make for easy reading. Although its message of judgment against Assyria shows that God will not allow sin to triumph, it can be difficult to fully appreciate the book’s celebration of Nineveh’s fall or to grasp how the consistent focus on punishment connects to the gospel. These and several other interpretative issues can be addressed if readers keep the following three points in mind.

1. The gospel forms the context for Nahum’s message (Nah. 1:2–8).

The first main section, Nahum 1:2–8, has a decidedly negative tone. Nahum takes for granted that all human beings, not just Assyrians (who are not mentioned in this section), stand exposed to God’s perfect justice (Nah. 1:2–3, 5–6, 8). It is thus profoundly good news that God is also a “stronghold in the day of trouble” who offers “refuge” from that very same judgment to those who entrust themselves to His mercy (Nah. 1:7).

Placed as it is at the beginning of the book, this section serves as an interpretative key for what follows in the rest of the book. Judah’s past sin, God’s gracious decision to end its affliction (Nah. 1:12), and the storm of judgment about to fall on Assyria are all prototypes of God’s two-sided work of judgment and salvation. Moreover, despite Assyria’s apparently unstoppable subjugation of the ancient Near East, including the Northern Kingdom of Israel less than a century before Nahum, God’s intervention will demonstrate that the empire’s claims to supremacy were false, as were its assertions that its gods had made that supremacy possible.

2. Assyria is not God’s ultimate enemy.

Although Nahum vehemently condemns Assyria, and especially Nineveh as its capital city, most Assyrians were not involved in its aggression, and some of its citizens were conquered Israelites. Indeed, the book maintains a consistent focus on Assyria’s kings (Nah. 1:11, 14), armed forces (most of Nah. 2), and others involved in its program of exploitation and self-glorification, and reveals that God’s judgment will fall primarily on them. To emperors like Esarhaddon (ruled 681–669 BC), who styled themselves as the “king of the world . . . foremost of all rulers” and depended on “great gods” such as Marduk and Nabu, the Lord simply says, “You are inconsequential” (Nah. 1:14), and makes it so. God’s retribution against Assyria-as-empire is a foretaste of His judgment against the “Babylon” of the book of Revelation, which represents not only Rome, but Babylon and Nineveh before it, as well as all human powers after it that are characterized by violence, a commitment to materialism, and God-defying self-exaltation (Rev. 17–18).

3. God will defeat all His enemies and fully deliver His people.

If God had not freely and graciously committed to save sinners, the destruction of all His enemies would consign all to condemnation and death (Rom. 5:12–14). Marvelously, God’s grace has broken into a world that is fully committed to autonomous self-realization on its terms, whether in Assyria’s imperialism long ago or other forms of rebellion against God in the present.

In light of the power of sin, both judgment and salvation are cause for rejoicing. When evil and those who practice it fall, their victims justifiably rejoice (Nah. 3:19; Rev. 19:1–5). Similarly, those who gladly receive God’s salvation celebrate His grace and mercy to them (Nah. 1:15) and look forward to the full realization of His saving purposes (Nah. 2:2).

Living in the already–not yet of the last days, Nahum’s message calls believers to maintain confidence in God’s promises and to deconstruct the world’s many contradictions of divine truth. Much like Nahum exposed the self-serving and self-destructive nature of Nineveh’s idolatrous imperialism, Christians should critique the many forms in which individuals, groups, and whole cultures usurp God’s prerogative in defining the human being as self-governing, without an innate knowledge of God, and fully capable of achieving perfect happiness by oneself.

Nahum also invites believers to deconstruct the ephemeral “ultimate” goods that human beings hold uppermost, whether material wealth, social status, self-attributed moral purity by virtue signaling, or the consolidation of power. These idols are just that—created by human beings, unable to save or satisfy, and already shown to be powerless (Nah. 1:13). Nahum’s gospel-driven critique of Assyrian imperialism shows its readers how to analyze culture in terms of God’s work of judgment and salvation, and so helps prepare believers for effective witness. It also protects us from being seduced by the world’s promises or letting our hope waver in the face of its insistent claims to be the source of all that is good—a title the Lord reserves for Himself, and a reality that fully saves and satisfies those who know Him (Nah. 1:7).

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.