Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah - Prophets of Doom
Arthur Shearman, Worcester, England
In each of the messages of the prophets, there is a content of judgment. In some this is more evident than in others. All the prophets denounced faithfully the evils of their times. With these denouncements, there came the pronouncements of the certainty of divine judgment. There is no doubt that they looked beyond their immediate day to a final consummation of judgment. The teaching relating to the day of the Lord makes this abundantly clear. Yet there was also the sense that judgment, the final sentence of doom, was deferred because of God's patience and love for those who sinned. Ezekiel 33. 11 stands as a shining example of this fact: "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live". Judgment is God's strange work; yet it is inevitable because of His very nature as God.
In this final study we shall notice some indications of the meaning of divine judgment as expressed by these three smaller minor prophets. This is how we can look at them—
NAHUM—the Ideas and Intentions of judgment. HABAKKUK—The Instruments of
ZEPHANIAH—The Inevitability of Judgment.
1. Nahum—Ideas and Intentions
Of the prophet very little is known— just that he was the Elkoshite, and that his burden or oracle concerned Nineveh. It is generally agreed that the date of his prophecy lies somewhere between the fall of Thebes in upper Egypt, about 663 B.C. (cf. ch. 3. 8), and the destruction of Nineveh about 608—607 B.C. Nahum's prophecy has been described as a terrible arraignment of a nation that seeks glory by war and oppression. His language is vivid and powerful in its imagery. The cruelty and barbarity of the Assyrian shocks him, and he states clearly what their recompense will be.
To understand the full intent of the prophecy we must keep in mind the message of Jonah. Nineveh had the opportunity and occasion of repentance. How important it was that Jonah should obey the command of the Lord to take the message of mercy to the wicked city. The determined intention of the Lord to show mercy to this city is seen in that "the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time", Jonah 3. 1. His servant's disobedience could not hinder the purpose of the Lord to give repentance, and to lift the cloud of doom that hung over the city. When repentance came, God acted. Notice the reasoning of the Lord as He faced the misbehaviour of His sadly out-of-touch servant 4. 9-11. Sovereignty with God needs no excuse for its actions, whether in mercy or judgment. The nature of God's wrath is a matter that needs to be rightly understood. He never acts in haste. It can never be said that He loses control of Himself, and therefore goes beyond His intentions. Therefore His "anger" can never be equated to man's. There is no imbalance in the divine nature which could lead to inconsistence in activity, whether in forgiving or condemning. God's wrath is an attitude towards sin which continually exists because of what he is as God. Therefore there will be no mistaken judgments as He winds up the affairs of nations and men. The sad truth is that, because of man's sin—not only in act but in nature, the inevitable reaction of the holiness of God, and the only course He can righteously take, is to judge and eventually to condemn.
There are three things that Nahum says about God which are a background to his ideas of judgment. The Lord is a jealous God and avenges— He avenges and is full of wrath. So He takes vengeance on, and reserves wrath for, His enemies, 1. 2. This idea sets a standard for judgment which is unalterable. His honour and His glory are at stake, and no deviation is possible. But again, the Lord is slow to anger and great in power. He will by no means clear the guilty, v. 3. There is nothing arbitrary or capricious in His actions of vengeance. There is the severity of God's indignation and the fierceness of His anger, but the third fact that comes over is that the Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who trust in Him, v. 7. These truths colour the intentions of God as He judges. The most telling words of condemnation are uttered by the prophet against Nineveh. The Lord is against this sinful people, 2. 13; 3. 5. This city, which had its origins with Nimrod the mighty hunter, that had become a mighty citadel of Assyrian power and culture, had become so utterly given over to every form of evil that Nahum expresses what could only be the action of God against it—absolute and final judgment. He could say, "Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her ?", 3. 7. Its destruction was so complete that it is recorded that Alexander the Great did not notice the site in 331 B.C. When the city fell it was utterly destroyed never to rise again. It was not until 1,842 A.D. that any trace of the city was discovered by Layard and Botta. Perhaps we can use the words of Paul in Romans11. 22 to sum up the ideas and intentions of divine judgment, "Behold then the goodness and severity of God : toward them that fell, severity".
2. Habakkuk—Instruments. The
"burden" of Habakkuk is literally a "cry from the heart". He is deeply exercised about two matters. Firstly, he is aware of the tragic evils of the people of God, 1. 2-4. His life was set in Jerusalem about the time that Nineveh fell. Most probably he had witnessed the reformation under the leadership of Josiah, Judah's last godly king. But he was also aware of the sad decline in spiritual life and standards that followed. Tyranny, strife, oppression of the righteous, every form of open sin, idolatry and witchcraft—these were the sins that were rife in the nation. Why did not the Lord judge His people? The answer is given by God, and this raises the second perplexity with the prophet. "For lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation ; which march through the breadth of the earth, to possess dwelling places that are not theirs", 1. 6. The prophet is shocked that such a cruel instrument is to be used by God to chastise His people. Notice the importance of verse 12 in this connection. "O Lord, thou hast ordained him for judgment; and thou, 0 Rock, hast established him for correction". Here is the heart of the matter! God is sovereign in His choice of instruments of judgment. They can be utterly unaware that they are being used by God in this way. The phenomenal rise to power and supremacy of the Babylonians, sweeping before them many of the existing nations, was, in the timetable of God, the beginning of the times of the Gentiles. His unbelieving and rebellious people were to be set aside, and in His sovereignty would suffer much for their departure and sin.
God raises up whom He will to do His work, cf. Rom. 9. 17. In these instruments of power He is glorified. Yet as Habakkuk took the only course he felt possible, and stood upon his watch, he learned from his God the true nature of His ways in judgment, Hab. 2. 1. He allows all—He controls all. The Chaldeans were allowed to hurt only within the context of the disciplinary dealings of God with His people. The very nature of the evils of Babylon was its own eventual destruction. The Chaldeans were not given an unlimited charter for destruction. Their own characteristic evils would lead to their own judgment, by the same God in whose hands they were instruments of chastisement. Mystery of divine providence!—yet this is the message that was given to Habakkuk.
Three beautiful touches of truth come out of the experience of the prophet. Conscious of the holiness of His God, 1.12,2. 20, where he cannot understand he waits and watches, 2. 1-3. This leads to the assurance that "the just shall live by his faith", 2. 4. Out of such exercises comes rejoicing. He begins with a burden and ends with a song. His closing words are a classic in Scripture, of joy in spite of adversity. "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord", 3. 18. Many times in the believer's experience, circumstances will defy logical explanation. But it is sufficient to know that God commands all. Even adversity then becomes the ground for rejoicing.
3. Zephaniah—Inevitably. This prophet is the earliest of the three. It could be that his ministry began before Josiah's reforms in Judah. It has been said that he "lived in an hour of decay and dissolution in the midst of a rapidly changing world order. The savage hordes of the Scythians, pouring down from the plains of South Russia, threw fear and consternation into the hearts of the people of Palestine". He could well have been about the same age as Josiah and Jeremiah. He saw the evils of his own land and the disturbances in the nations round about.
The scope of Zephaniah's prophecy is much wider than that of Nahum and Habakkuk. He is not concerned with the activities of one city or one nation, either to be judged or to judge others. Beginning at his own beloved land, he speaks of the effect of the judgment of the Lord upon all lands. In speaking of the day of the Lord he is speaking of that period of time when the finality of all judgment will be executed.
It is interesting to notice the starting place of divine judgment: 1. 2 speaks of the removal from the face of .the ground of all things. But the Lord begins at Judah and Jerusalem. Judgment begins at the city of God—the house of God. This is significant, and it reveals the prophet's deep consciousness of his own people's sin. He does not stop here. In chapters 2-3 he extends his condemnations to the nations far a field, even including Ethiopia and Nineveh. Thus, in his wide sweep of vision, he takes in all nations. For all "that day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of waste ness and desolation", 1. 14-16. The prophet does not spare his words; he speaks out of a full heart.
The message of Zephaniah is that evil, whatever its form and where-ever it is found, inevitably brings judgment. God must be God—He must display His character. Speaking of the righteousness of God in Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament Snaith says, "with its kindred words (it) signifies that standard which God maintains in this world. It is the norm by which all must be judged . . . God is His own necessity. Justice is what God wills because such is His nature" (p. 77). This is an important comment. In a world that has turned soft in its attitude to moral demands and standards, it cannot be stressed too firmly that where absolute righteousness exists, as it does in God Himself, judgment upon all sin is not only possible or probable—it is inevitable. This is why all the prophets were without exception insistent upon the facts of divine judgment.
Let us end upon a brighter note. In Zephaniah is one of the most beautiful of all Old Testament passages which tell of the values of God's love for His people in spite of all their failures. It is like a shaft of sunlight through the dark, threatening storm clouds. "Sing, 0 daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, 0 daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgments . . . The Lord thy God is in the midst of thee, a mighty one who will save: he will rejoice over thee with joy, he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing", 3. 14-17. Judgment is inevitable, but so is the outcome of God's boundless love.
His love—there the triumph lies— for Israel and for us, the changeless values of His love.