God’s message for Assyria (Nahum, Jonah)

Two Minor Prophets heard God’s message for Nineveh, capital of the biggest, “baddest” empire of the Middle East in the eighth century BC. Assyria traded on its reputation for violence, so that the other nations would yield to them.

The prophets say that’s not right. God runs the world, and the nations must answer to him. But Nahum and Jonah have very different views of how God will deal with Nineveh.


Nahum’s message is that God will protect his people by bringing down enemies like Assyria:

Nahum 1:7-8 (NIV)
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, 8 but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.

Nineveh’s propaganda makes Assyria the top predator that no one can stop. Nahum challenges that claim. The world belongs to God, and God will not leave his world in violent hands:

Nahum 3:1-5 (NIV)
1 Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! …  3 Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses — 4 all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft. 5 “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty.

Nahum reveals violence and deception as the source of Nineveh’s power. With the machinery of war, she forced nations to serve her. With her wealth, she seduced nation under her spell, luring them to serve her. 2 Kings 18:31–35 is an example of her propaganda in action.

Nahum cuts through her lies to reveal who runs the world. Nineveh’s violence and deception make her God’s enemy. She’s in a battle she cannot win.

Nahum concludes that Nineveh will fall. Her self-confident leaders believe their own lies. God will release the peoples from her grasp. Power that relies on force is fatally flawed:

Nahum 3:18-19 (NIV)
18 King of Assyria, your shepherds slumber; your nobles lie down to rest. Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them. 19 Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?

After a three-month siege in 612 BC, Nineveh fell to Babylon. The Assyrian king was put to death. Nahum was right.


Jonah was different. While other prophets spoke about the nations (e.g. Isaiah 13–24; Ezekiel 25–32), only Jonah was sent to the nations.

It was a terrifying commission. Assyria was Israel’s archenemy. Jonah didn’t even want to be in Israel if Assyria attacked. He booked an escape to the other end of the world (Spain).

God has two problems. Not only is an evil empire trying to capture God’s world, but God’s own people refuse to speak for him. Which is the greater problem: the nations, or God’s nation?

The two problems are intertwined. God chose Israel to be a light to the nations. Through the nation that accepted his reign, God planned to extend his reign to the nations. But if God’s nation won’t obey him, what hope is there for the nations?

So, here’s the question in the Book of Jonah: if the nations had the same revelation that Israel received, would the nations be more responsive than God’s nation?

God does not let Jonah sail off into the sunset. They narrow it down to Jonah who is running away from the Lord (Jonah 1:10). So these foreigners cry out to the Lord, … greatly fear the Lord, offer a sacrifice to the Lord and make Lord to him (Jonah 1:14, 16). Who’s more responsive? The prophet who has God’s revelation, or the pagans?

Just like God’s rebellious nation, Jonah’s troubles spring from his disobedience. The people of the nations throw him overboard, so he’s sinking to the realm of the dead (2:2). Israel was to be God’s lifesaver for the nations, but who is God’s lifesaver for Israel?

God chooses a creature from the depths. A creature that knows nothing but its own hunger becomes the saviour, as the Lord commanded the fish (2:10). The fish is more obedient than the prophet, God’s nation, or the nations.

Rescued from the grave, Jonah must resume his commission. It’s what he’d promised: What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’ (2:9). But Jonah doesn’t say that. He wants Nineveh destroyed, so that’s what he says: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (3:4).

And yet, the Ninevites believed God (3:5). They’d never seen power used the way God handled his prejudiced prophet: rescue and redirection, rather than retaliation or retribution. They could trust a ruler like that. If there was hope for Jonah, there could be hope for them too.

God’s plan was working. By bringing his own people back on track, God saved Assyria (3:10). Divine grace can save the world.

But God’s patience and Jonah’s anger are still in conflict. Ever since that first covenant violation with the golden calf, Israel knows the Lord is a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (4:2, compare Exodus 34:6). But if that’s how God treats the nations too, Jonah doesn’t want to live in God’s world (4:3).

In Jonah’s mind, there’s God’s nation and then there’s everything else (the nations and the animals). In God’s heart, he’s reigning over and rescuing it all: “Should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?” (4:10-11)


Who was right? Was Nahum right, and God wanted to destroy Nineveh? Or was Jonah right, and God wanted to save them?

Nahum was right with his controversial claim that the Lord reigns over all the nations of the earth. It is God’s responsibility to deal with the kingdoms that want to take everyone into their grasp and dominate God’s world. They cannot last. They must fall.

Jonah was wrong to run from God so the nations could not hear the Lord calling them to stand down from their violent and domineering ways. But even as Jonah sank for his sins, he became a living sign that salvation comes from the Lord.

Eventually, the sign of Jonah becomes the sign of Jesus: For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation (Luke 11:30). Jesus was thrown overboard not by foreign sailors but by his own nation. Jesus sank into the demise of his own people. God rescued him, not from burial at sea but burial in the earth. God raised him up as a sign for the world that had rejected divine kingship. God’s heart is to rescue all the peoples of the earth from oppression under evil and death, through his Messiah.

Nineveh was doing wrong by God. So was Jonah. Jonah became the sign of how God rescues his people. And the world.

What others are saying

Kenneth L. Barker, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 152–153:

Nahum often is judged to be a false prophet with only a hymn of hate …  Closer examination of Nahum’s book finds an awesome view of a sovereign, just God who enforces international justice and absolute moral standards while offering hope to a downtrodden, depressed people. … The message of the prophet Nahum is a message of the power of God to overcome the power of evil. As M. Luther wrote: “[Nahum] teaches us to trust God and to believe, especially when we despair of all human help, human powers, and counsel, that the Lord stands by those who are His, shields His own against all attacks of the enemy, be they ever so powerful.”

Douglas Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1987), 509:

The fish was a gift to Jonah. It delivered him from death. He certainly did not deserve that deliverance. The climbing gourd was also a gift to Jonah. He had done nothing to earn it (4:10). Why then cannot God, in the same sort of way, give Nineveh something it does not deserve, has not earned? What right does Jonah have to be angry? What right have we to be angry that God should bless people, groups, institutions, nations who have done nothing to deserve such blessing? Can we ever rightly resent — let alone denounce — the grace of God shown to any of the world’s nations or peoples, oppressed or oppressor, peace-loving or war-making? What sense is there in the common, tacit assumption that our only nation is his only nation?

Daniel C. Timmer, “Nineveh, Critical Issues,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016):

The seeming discrepancies between Jonah and Nahum’s depictions of Nineveh may be best understood in terms of the different historical settings and messages of the two books. Jonah, which is set in the eighth century, presents Nineveh as still capable of a change in behavior, which is enough to prevent the city’s destruction at that point. … The Ninevites’ repentance aligns with Jonah’s emphasis on God’s freedom to show grace to Gentiles (e.g., Jonah 4).

Nahum is set at least a century later than Jonah and presents Nineveh as having become irredeemable. … Nahum’s negative characterization of the city and its ultimate destruction aligns with the book’s focus on proving that the supreme example of evil and violence in the ancient Near East will not go unpunished indefinitely (Nah 1:9, 14–15).

Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), 140–141:

It all begins with a sign — the sign of Jonah. Jonah is an almost comic figure in the Old Testament: the prophet who runs away, the problem passenger thrown into the sea, the dinner the whale can’t stomach, and the hothead who gets cross with God over a withered plant. In between, though, he told the people of Nineveh to repent, never thinking they would listen and obey. But he was wrong: they did — whether or not, as in Matthew’s version of the story, because they had heard about his escapade with the sea and the whale, or whether simply because of the power of the message.

Now here is Jesus, anything but a comic figure, telling his own people it’s time to repent, and they ignore him. Here is Jesus with a greater wisdom than even the legendary Solomon, and his own people don’t listen. There is a straight line from this point that leads to the moment when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because, unlike Nineveh, it has ignored the warnings, refused the way of peace, and thereby sealed its own fate.

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Image: Artist’s impression of Assyrian palaces, from a sketch by James Fergusson (1808–1886). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyria

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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